Deposed Thai Premier Maintains Rural Popularity

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Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra pleads not guilty to corruption charges after returning from exile. He remains very popular, particularly among Thailand's rural people and urban poor for his financial and social welfare policies.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVEN INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The former prime minister of Thailand appeared in court today. He pleaded not guilty to corruption charges in the latest episode of a dramatic career. Two years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed in a coup while out of the country. Two week ago, he returned to Thailand to face the charges. Thaksin says he'll never return to politics, but the billionaire telecommunications mogul remains hugely popular among Thailand's poor.

NPR's Michael Sullivan went to northern Thailand to find out why.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Most Thais will tell you they don't expect much from their politicians and that's pretty much what they get. But Thaksin, many rural voters insist, is different.

(Soundbite of pigs squealing)

Adivin Mansong(ph) keeps pigs in the village of Sanpatong near the northern city of Chiang Mai. For her, Thaksin is the man who started the village loan program shortly after he took office, which allowed Adivin to borrow $400 to start raising pigs. Three years later her business is booming. Today, she's got nearly two dozen pigs almost ready for market and two sows about to deliver a whole bunch more.

Ms. ADIVIN MANSONG (Thaksin Shinawatra supporter): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I used to work as a day laborer before I got the loan, she says, and we barely had enough money to eat. Now we're doing much better, and I've saved enough to send my two kids to school in the city. None of this, she says, would've been possible without Thaksin.

Ms. MANSONG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I don't care about the corruption charges, she says. There's corruption in every government. At least Thaksin gave the poor people something. And that's more, she says, than the other politicians did.

Unidentified Woman (Resident, Thailand): (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SOM SAK UNTAI (Clinician, Thailand): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: At the village health clinic, more fans of the former prime minister - in particular, his 30 baht healthcare scheme - universal healthcare for about a dollar a visit. The 74-year-old getting her blood pressure checked and a refill on her pills, says she wouldn't be able to come if she had to pay more. The center's clinician, Som Sak Untai(ph) says there are many like her.

Mr. UNTAI: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: About 15 people come to the clinic everyday, he says, and about a third of them probably wouldn't come if there was no 30 baht healthcare. So Thaksin deserves credit for that, he says, and for the village loan program and for his war on drugs.

(Soundbite of chopping)

Drugs are a big problem, not just in the cities but in rural villages like Sanpatong, too, as these farmers, readying their fields, are quick to point out. Villagers here say Thaksin's war on drugs is the number one reason they support him even today, nearly two years after his ouster.

Jum Jai Panyamong(ph) has a 17-year-old daughter and a lot of worries about Yaba, the Thai name for methamphetamines.

Ms. JUM JAI PANYAMONG (Resident, Thailand): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: We have a big problem with Yaba in my village, she says. My neighbor's son is only 12 and he's already involved with drugs. When Thaksin was prime minister, she says, his war on drugs made our schools and our village safer.

Public opinion polls show most Thais agree, even though the war on drugs drew criticism from human rights groups. An estimated 2,500 people were killed during the government's 2003 campaign, many critics say in extrajudicial killings by overzealous police.

But farmer Jum Jai is skeptical.

Ms. PANYAMONG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I don't know about anywhere else, but in my village, she says, we know what was involved in the drug trade. And the people the police targeted here were guilty, she says, 100 percent.

To Jum Jai and her neighbors in this village it doesn't really matter that the war on drugs failed to catch any big fish, nor does it matter that the village loan program has left some farmers deep in debt. And none of the villagers here care much about the corruption charges either, even if they're true. Here, the villagers say, Thaksin delivered. And they'd have him back in a minute if they could.

Mr. TITINOM PONSUTURAK(ph) (Political Analyst): He's got the voters support. The majority of voters in a fair vote would still go for him and Thaksin could still be elected prime minister.

SULLIVAN: But, says political analyst Titinom Ponsuturak, Thaksin must first beat the corruption charges against him and get the five year ban on his participation in politics lifted.

In the meantime, Thaksin insists he's through with politics. But analyst Titinom says few Thais really believe him.

Mr. PONSUTURAK: It's in his personality. He's a fighter. He likes to be the first mover. He likes to have one leg up on you. And he has convictions, he has resources, and he thinks that he is the messiah of Thai politics.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

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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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