UDON THANI, THAILAND
DOWN a bumpy rural track in Thailand’s impoverished northeast, Pichit Peema is gathering produce for his thriving business, set up seven years ago under a village loan scheme.
Previously a struggling rice farmer, he used a loan granted under policies introduced by ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra to start a mushroom-growing operation, and can now harvest up to 200 kilogrammes of fungi a day to sell across Udon Thani province.
“My life is better – I can give the money to my children so they can graduate and have a better life,” said Pichit, 47.
Taking a break by his brightly painted new house topped with a huge satellite dish, he praised twice-elected Thaksin for bettering his lot with the low-interest loans programme.
“Thaksin was a great social engineer because he helped poor people,” he said of the telecoms tycoon, who was deposed in a coup in 2006 and now lives abroad, mainly in Dubai, to escape a two-year jail term for graft.
IN DATES: the rise and fall of Thaksin
Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party takes power after general elections. Thaksin is re-elected in 2005, becoming the first prime minister to complete a full term in office.
January 23, 2006
Thaksin family announces the tax-free sale of its 49 percent stake in telecoms
giant Shin Corp to Singapore’s state-owned investment unit Temasek for more than 73 billion baht. The move sparks months of protests by the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
September 19, 2006
The army seizes power in a bloodless coup as Thaksin attends a session of the UN General Assembly in New York. More than a year of military rule follows, and Thaksin remains in exile.
Anti-graft panel freezes Thaksin’s assets.
The People Power Party, comprised of Thaksin’s allies, wins elections and forms a coalition government in February 2008.
Thaksin and his wife Pojaman flee Thailand again, saying they will not get a fair trial on corruption charges.
Clashes between police and PAD demonstrators kill two people and wound nearly 500. A court sentences Thaksin in absentia to two years in jail for conflict of interest.
The Constitutional Court dissolves the People Power Party, forcing out Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat as Prime Minister. Abhisit Vejjajiva of the rival Democrat Party becomes premier.
Red Shirts loyal to Thaksin hold protests against Abhisit’s government. Riots and a state of emergency in Bangkok ensue.
Prime Minister Hun Sen appoints Thaksin as an economic adviser, triggering a meltdown of diplomatic relations with Bangkok.
Pichit is one of the Red Shirts – the brightly dressed, pro-Thaksin group planning its next mass antigovernment protests after a court ruling due today on whether to seize the billionaire’s assets, frozen after the coup.
Here in Thaksin’s stronghold – the neglected northeastern region of Isaan, the poorest part of Thailand – his followers say he was the first prime minister to properly address the needs of the rural populace.
“In our era we have not seen a person like Thaksin before. He is a hero for us,” said Tongsri Yothkeaw, 55, who works as a rice farmer and on her family’s small flower-growing operation in the village of Huay Samhan, also in Udon Thani.
Pointing to her throat, she explained that a thyroid operation cost her less than US$1 thanks to the so-called 30-baht healthcare scheme introduced by Thaksin after he swept to power in 2001.
“He used to help us. I want him to come back,” she said.
Though agriculture is the main economic activity in Isaan, farming has been hindered by the mainly arid, sandy land that allows for fewer rice harvests than in other areas.
Analysts say a dearth of quality education, technology and infrastructure has also been key to the poverty of Isaan’s people.
Thaksin appealed to these marginalised masses not only with his populist policies but also in his style of leadership, according to historian Chris Baker, who has written extensively on the former premier.
“Here was this man who appeared in his open-necked shirt, not very smart, coming to the village and saying, ‘Tell me what you want me to do’,” Baker said. “This was a very empowering idea in a country where politicians have tended to be rather remote.”.
Though current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has maintained some of Thaksin’s policies, Baker said, he has returned to the older, more detached style of governance – only serving to strengthen Thaksin’s popularity.
“He was a little bit corrupt, but he worked more for the people,” said Bangkok food vendor Yoon Poodindan, 47, one of the capital’s many migrants from the northeast.
The fugitive ex-premier’s supporters have vowed to hold fresh protests in mid-March until they see the back of Abhisit’s government, which took power in December 2008 after the fall of the previous, pro-Thaksin administration.
The Red Shirts say they are campaigning against the power of Thailand’s elite – including army and palace officials – whom they accuse of
ousting elected governments and defending entrenched social inequalities.
“I think the Red Shirt movement is not about Thaksin alone, it’s for equality in society,” said Samreng Mahakor, 40, a Bangkok motorcycle taxi driver also from Isaan.
“Red Shirts have been treated as second-class people. Even if Thaksin died, we won’t stop until we get fairness,” he said. AFP