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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Thai prime minister's style split nation

(AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

Thai prime minister's style split nation
Associated Press Writer
Wed Sep 20, 6:24 AM ET

It took 18 months for Thaksin Shinawatra to go from the biggest election victor in his country's history to the target of a successful military coup.

It was a dramatic fall for the 57-year-old billionaire who described himself a new breed of politician able to revitalize Thailand by running it like a company.

Critics claimed he was authoritarian, arrogant and survived by pitting the rural majority against the country's urban elite.

"We warned Thaksin a long time ago about this," said Suriyasai Katasila, a spokesman for the anti-Thaksin protest group People's Alliance for Democracy. "Thaksin and the government just claimed that they won the election by a landslide, so they could use their power as they pleased."

Thaksin, who hails from a family of silk merchants and was educated in the United States, rose to power on a populist platform in 2001 as Thailand was recovering from Asia's devastating financial crisis.

He courted controversy even before he took office.

A week before the 2001 election, Thaksin was charged with concealing assets in his telecommunications empire by transferring shares to relatives, his chauffeur, maid and others. At one point, two of his domestic servants were among the top 10 shareholders on Thailand's stock exchange.

However, Thaksin won over voters by accusing the incumbent Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai of neglecting the poor and failing to properly manage the country's economy.

Thaksin nurtured his core constituency in the countryside, lavishing the poor rural majority with virtually free health care, a three-year debt suspension program for farmers and low-interest loans for poor villages.

But his popularity in the countryside was matched by growing criticism in the cities, where activists and intellectuals portrayed him as an autocrat masquerading as a democrat. They accused him of disregarding human rights, muffling the press and blurring the lines between his private businesses and politics.

Thaksin came under fire for a war on drugs that left 2,300 Thais dead over a three-month period. Human rights groups complained police were turned loose to kill drug dealers and users at will. Thaksin defended the police, saying drug lords turned against each other, and he noted that drug use dropped.

He also was accused of mishandling the worsening Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, after he imposed a state of emergency that led to rights abuses and failed to stem the violence, which has left more than 1,700 dead.

But it wasn't until late last year that his authority was truly tested.

What started in October as a minor protest led by publisher Sondhi Limthongkul caught fire in January, after Thaksin sold the family's controlling stake in telecommunications company Shin Corp. to Singapore's state investment company, Temasek Holdings, for $1.9 billion. No tax was paid on the sale.

Critics say the Shin deal involved insider trading and tax dodges, and complained that national assets — including communications satellites — were sold to a foreign government.

Anger over the sale helped the movement attract middle-class voters, students and business leaders, prompting street rallies that became nightly protests and at times drew more than 100,000 people demanding his resignation.

Thaksin responded by dissolving the parliament in February, and called snap elections to defuse the protests. But opposition parties boycotted the polls and millions of voters marked an abstention box on their ballots as a protest against the prime minister.

The Parliament could not be convened and the vote was ruled invalid by the courts, forcing the new polls to be held later this year.

Thaksin initially said he would step down to ease the crisis but in recent weeks had been acting and talking like a politician on the comeback trail.

Just days ago in New York, Thaksin made light of the ongoing political crisis, comparing Thailand to a "child learning to walk" and refusing to say what his future held.

"I, for one, haven't seen a child learning to walk without bumping his bottom constantly," he told a crowd in New York. "As adults, we must learn to live with the pain and the pangs of democracy, lest we throw out the baby with the bath water."

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