BANGKOK (Reuters) - To the rural masses at the heart of Thailand’s “red shirt” protest movement, he is a mold-breaking prime minister, the first leader to pay attention to the needs of millions living beyond Bangkok’s bright lights.
To the educated, urban middle-classes and royalist elite, however, Thaksin Shinawatra is a crony capitalist who plundered the economy and perverted democracy for the benefit of his family and friends while in power from 2001 until a 2006 military coup.
But as a political crisis that has paralyzed Bangkok enters an eighth week, Thaksin’s role is clearly changing. He no longer telephones daily into rallies in the protesters’ 3 sq km (1.2 sq mile) fortified encampment in central Bangkok.
Red shirt leaders now seldom mention his name in rally speeches, a conspicuous shift from weeks ago when leaders handed out autographed glossy fliers emblazoned with his image and trumpeted his achievements nightly to supporters.
“Over the past weeks, I think we have seen his profile diminishing quite a bit,” said Federico Ferrara, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.
“This is a smart strategy on his part to let the movement develop and grow without him. As long as he is considered the head of it and the paymaster behind it, it is very difficult for the movement to succeed.”
Speaking to Reuters on April 19, Thaksin said he was happy living overseas, mostly in Dubai, and had no plans to return to Thailand as long as his opponents were trying to “hunt me down.”
After recent rumors reported in Thai media that he had died, Thaksin “tweeted” on Saturday he was alive and in Uganda inspecting a possible gold-mining project. A day later, he told a reporter at Thailand’s Nation newspaper: “It’s me, not a ghost.”
But Thaksin has hovered ghost-like over Thai politics since fleeing the country in 2008, accused of undermining the country’s powerful monarchy, breaching conflict-of-interest laws and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison.
Government officials say the multimillionaire former telecommunications tycoon is still funding the protests to the tune of about $1.5 million a day, which red shirt leaders deny.
Safe in the knowledge that support from upcountry Thais -- 70 percent of the population -- will almost certainly carry his allies to victory in the next general election, possibly clearing the way for his return, Thaksin can afford to lay low.
Thaksin’s role, analysts say, complicates the red shirts’ message that they are a democracy movement seeking to end political meddling by unelected elites.
The mostly rural and urban poor red shirts say Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote 17 months ago and heading a coalition cobbled together with help from the military.
But while Thaksin, a former policeman, often declares himself the embodiment of democracy, his critics accused him of abusing his electoral mandate to systematically dismantle constitutional checks and balances while cementing his own authoritarian rule.
In 2005, the 60-year-old businessman looked unassailable with a record majority in parliament based on the a platform of cheap healthcare and handouts for rural voters that swept him to power in 2001. He became the first leader in Thai history to win a parliamentary majority on its own, and formed the first elected government to serve a full term, after which it was re-elected.
But corruption scandals and alleged abuses of power steadily eroded his popularity among Bangkok’s middle classes. That was compounded by royalist accusations that Thaksin was undermining the country’s powerful and revered monarchy, which he denied.
Simmering anger exploded in 2006 when his relatives sold off, tax-free, their $1.9 billion stake in Shin Corp, the telecoms empire he founded, to a Singapore state company.
Ever the wily politician, Thaksin countered the urban revolt by calling an election three years early, which he duly won.
Born into a family of ethnic Chinese silk merchants in 1949 in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin became a policeman in 1973 before winning a state scholarship to study for a masters degree in criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University.
He is still popular among Bangkok’s rank-and-file policemen, who are accused by the government’s supporters of not doing enough to stop the red shirt protests.
Thaksin took a criminal justice doctorate from Sam Houston State University in Texas and taught at the Thai Police Cadet Academy, which may explain his tough stance on law and order.
In 1987 he went into business, establishing a small computer dealership with his wife Potjaman that started selling hardware to the police force. The company evolved into Shin Corp, a telecoms conglomerate with interests ranging from mobile phones to satellites, the Internet and the media.
But his rise and rise was not without controversy.
A corruption inquiry dogged his early days of power until he convinced investigators he made an “honest mistake” in failing to declare millions of dollars of shares transferred to his domestic staff, including a maid, security guard and chauffeur.
A 2003 war on drugs in which 2,500 people were killed boosted his image as a crime-buster but sparked outrage from human rights groups, who said he was riding roughshod over civil liberties.
His firm response to violence in the Muslim south prompted charges he had given the army carte blanche to quell a separatist rebellion that had lain dormant for 20 years.
In February, Thailand’s top court seized $1.4 billion of his assets, saying it was accrued through abuse of power.
Editing by Alex Richardson