Ousted Thai Leader Returns to Face Charges

Deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has returned to Thailand from 17 months in exile to face corruption charges. He says the allegations are empty.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Thailand's colorful and controversial former leader has returned from exile. As prime minister of that Southeast Asian country, Thaksin Shinawatra was always larger than life. He's one of the richest men in Thailand, though he was hated by the rich and loved by the poor. He was deposed in a military coup a year and a half ago, and today he returned to the Thai capital, Bangkok, to face corruption charges. He was greeted by crowds of cheering supporters.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NPR's Michael Sullivan joins us from Bangkok. And first, Michael, tell us about the man who's been called a benign dictator, a vote buyer and many worse things.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Yes, he has, but on the other hand he's a man who won three straight general elections here with a clear majority every time. He's a man that the people - once you get outside Bangkok of the people inside Bangkok who are the poor people, he's a man that they love very much. And he's a guy who even though - you know, the military deposed him in this 2006 coup and they also banned him from participating in politics for five year. They banned 110 of his closest colleagues from his party from participating in politics. He just created, behind the scenes, a new party. And that party is the won that the December election here that the military had promised after the coup which left many people wondering, well, what were the last 17 months all about.

MONTAGNE: You know, why, though, we mentioned that he was so popular among Thailand's poor. Why?

SULLIVAN: Well, because he was different than most Thai politicians because when he was campaigning he would promise the people things and then he would actually make good on some of those promises. And that was something that they just weren't used to here.

I mean, he came up with this 30 baht healthcare scheme, where Thai's could go to the doctor and pay 30 baht, that's about a dollar, to see a doctor. That was something completely new.

He also started this village loan program where the government gave loans to villages and the village heads would in turn give the money to local people. They could start small businesses. Things like that. So that's why he's still enormously popular with rural Thai and with poor urban Thai's as well.

MONTAGNE: And yet his very vocal opponents say that when he was in power he perverted democracy. Why?

SULLIVAN: I think there's a bit of sour grapes there, but I also think there's probably a bit of truth to it in that his party, Thai Rak Thai, had such an overwhelming majority in the Thai parliament that they could basically do whatever they want. And I think they got a little heavy handed. And I think that his opponents would tell you that there was too cozy a relationship between Thaksin and some of his business connections.

MONTAGNE: So just briefly, he's back facing corruption charges, says he won't reenter politics, what's next?

SULLIVAN: Well, I don't think you'd find a single Thai who would actually believe that this guy is going to make good on his pledge of not returning to politics. He said it before he got on the airplane in Hong Kong today, that he was through with politics forever, that he was just going to be an ordinary Thai citizen. He said it again at a press conference today after he got back from him bail hearing. But nobody here believes that. And many people here still want Thaksin to be prime minister, because they look back on the days when he was prime minister as a time of prosperity for them. But there's this other segment of the population here, the urban elite - the Bangkok elite in particular - who just hate him and want to see him go away for good. And obviously that hasn't happened.

MONTAGNE: Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan speaking from Bangkok. And you can read a profile of the former Thai leader at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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Deposed Thai Leader Thaksin Returns Home

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in exile in England for 17 months. Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned home in February to two very different greetings.

Thousands of supporters welcomed the telecommunications billionaire with roses when he arrived at the Bangkok airport. They cheered as he knelt and touched his forehead to the ground — a gesture of love for his homeland.

But Thaksin's second stop was Thailand's Supreme Court, where he posted nearly $270, 000 bail on corruption and conflict-of-interest charges. His wife Pojaman, who also faces corruption charges, returned in January and is now free pending trial. Both have said they look forward to a legal process they are confident will exonerate them.

A controversial politician, Thaksin was in exile, mostly in Britain, for the past 17 months. He was deposed by the Thai military in 2006 amid allegations that he and his family had evaded taxes in a nearly $2 billion deal to sell its shares in Thailand's biggest telecommunications company.

A Businessman and Politician with a Police Background

The 58-year-old Thaksin comes from a wealthy family in the northern province of Chiang Mai. He began his career as a member of the Royal Thai Police and studied criminal justice in the United States during the late 1970s.

Thaksin left the police force in 1987, after he and his wife began developing outside business interests. They had a series of business failures, but built their fortune in the 1990s after obtaining a monopoly to set up a mobile phone company.

In the mid-1990s, Thaksin entered politics, serving as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in successive governments. Rivals later claimed that his political activism was at least partly a way to protect his business interests by preventing deregulation of Thailand's telecommunications markets.

A Program that Won Support from the Rural Poor

In 1998, Thaksin was a co-founder of the Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") Party. The TRT won an overwhelming victory in 2001, on a platform that promised affordable health care, a debt moratorium for farmers and development funding for rural villages. Although he was credited with improving the lot of Thailand's rural poor majority, critics accused Thaksin of trying to snatch dictatorial power and of nepotism, press censorship and corruption.

Opponents — mostly middle-class and urban — stepped up pressure against Thaksin and his familiy in 2006, when they sold the telecom stock tax-free. Facing intense criticism, Thaksin called a snap election, which was boycotted by opposition parties. The TRT won, but Thailand's highest court invalidated the election. After months of political turmoil, Thailand's military seized power in September, just before a new election was to be held.

An Exile in England

Thaksin went into exile in England (where he bought the Manchester City Football Club). The TRT party, charged with electoral fraud, was dissolved by order of a constitutional court. Many of its leaders, including Thaksin, were banned from politics for five years.

Last summer, Thaksin supporters who were not banned reorganized themselves as the People's Power Party, promising to continue most of Thaksin's programs The PPP won nationwide elections in December and now rules Thailand as part of a six-party coalition government. PPP leaders were among those who welcomed Thaksin with open arms, but his opponents warned that, if he tries to use political influence to evade criminal prosecution, they are ready to take action.

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