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 Thai government, the urban middle class and the royalist elite, Thaksin Shinawatra is a terrorist and a crony capitalist who plundered the economy while in power from 2001 until a 2006 military coup and then led a movement that reduced parts of Bangkok to smoldering ruins this week.
His exact role in the anti-government movement is murky although both sides agree he remains one of Thailand’s most divisive and influential figures at a time when long-dormant fissures in Thai society are flaring dangerously into the open.
The question facing Thailand is whether Thaksin’s chances of returning to power are now as battered as the city itself after nearly 10 weeks of protests that ended with the worst night of rioting and arson in modern Thai history.
”This is the man who will never give up,“ said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ”Many red-shirted protesters who have returned home will continue to look up to him as savior of the poor.
“The heavy-handed measures adopted by the government have effectively deepened the already divisive society. Thaksin is here to further deepen it. The game of political retaliation is not yet over,” he added.
The protesters say the rural and urban poor “red shirt” movement has moved beyond him, coalescing around a message of injustice in a country with one of Asia’s widest disparities between rich and poor, and where a royalist establishment is accused of thwarting democracy through judicial intervention.
They say British-born Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva lacks a popular mandate after entering office through a parliamentary vote 18 months ago with tacit military support, and accuse him of preventing Thaksin’s allies from returning to power in a vote.
A prolific “tweeter”, Thaksin often uses the Internet to rally supporters with Facebook messages or webcasts encouraging “peaceful resistance” from his self-imposed exile, largely in Dubai, after he fled Thailand in 2008 to avoid a prison sentence for breaching conflict-of-interest laws.
But his role is far more extensive, say diplomatic and government sources.
Government officials say Thaksin is more mastermind than figurehead and is believed to have organized the smuggling of arms and fighters from Cambodia, whose prime minister is a close ally.
Officials say the multimillionaire former telecommunications tycoon funded the protests to the tune of about $1.5 million a day, which red shirt leaders deny.
Thaksin himself has denied any role in the violence.
But hours after Thai troops and armored vehicles began a pre-dawn offensive on Wednesday to remove thousands of the “red shirts” from Bangkok’s commercial district, he warned the crackdown could spark guerrilla warfare.
A day later, when journalists sifted through rubbish, clothing and other debris left behind in the 3 sq km (1.2 sq mile) tented encampment in Bangkok’s commercial heart, Thaksin’s image was ubiquitous, beaming from posters on the sides of tents.
On one, he is riding a horse, smiling. In another, he is in buttoned-down dress shirt, looking relaxed and easing into an armchair, a patriarchal figure.
In the vote-rich north and northeast, a Thaksin stronghold and home to just over half of Thailand’s 67 million people, images of Bangkok in flames drew cheers.
“Life was better for us under Thaksin, but it’s not about him any more, it’s about us now,” said Niran Huwanuen, 50, a gas station worker in northern Chiang Mai province, those around him nodding in agreement. “Our people have been killed by the military. This is bigger than Thaksin now.”
While Thaksin often declares himself the embodiment of democracy, his record tells a different story.
Critics accuse him of abusing his electoral mandate to systematically dismantle constitutional checks and balances while cementing his own authoritarian rule. Media watchdogs say he oversaw a steady erosion of press freedom.
In 2005, the 60-year-old businessman looked unassailable with a record majority in parliament based on a platform of cheap healthcare and handouts for rural voters that swept him to power in 2001. His party became the first in Thai history to win a parliamentary majority on its own and he 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 class. 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 were accused by the government’s supporters of not doing enough to stop the red shirt protests.
His 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.
In February, Thailand’s top court seized $1.4 billion of his assets, saying it was accrued through abuse of power.
Editing by Alan Raybould