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Ousted Thai Leader Returns to Face Charges

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Thailand's colorful and controversial former leader has returned from exile. As prime minister of that Southeast Asian country, Thaksin Shinawatra was always larger than life. He's one of the richest men in Thailand, though he was hated by the rich and loved by the poor. He was deposed in a military coup a year and a half ago, and today he returned to the Thai capital, Bangkok, to face corruption charges. He was greeted by crowds of cheering supporters.

(Soundbite of cheering)

NPR's Michael Sullivan joins us from Bangkok. And first, Michael, tell us about the man who's been called a benign dictator, a vote buyer and many worse things.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Yes, he has, but on the other hand he's a man who won three straight general elections here with a clear majority every time. He's a man that the people - once you get outside Bangkok of the people inside Bangkok who are the poor people, he's a man that they love very much. And he's a guy who even though - you know, the military deposed him in this 2006 coup and they also banned him from participating in politics for five year. They banned 110 of his closest colleagues from his party from participating in politics. He just created, behind the scenes, a new party. And that party is the won that the December election here that the military had promised after the coup which left many people wondering, well, what were the last 17 months all about.

MONTAGNE: You know, why, though, we mentioned that he was so popular among Thailand's poor. Why?

SULLIVAN: Well, because he was different than most Thai politicians because when he was campaigning he would promise the people things and then he would actually make good on some of those promises. And that was something that they just weren't used to here.

I mean, he came up with this 30 baht healthcare scheme, where Thai's could go to the doctor and pay 30 baht, that's about a dollar, to see a doctor. That was something completely new.

He also started this village loan program where the government gave loans to villages and the village heads would in turn give the money to local people. They could start small businesses. Things like that. So that's why he's still enormously popular with rural Thai and with poor urban Thai's as well.

MONTAGNE: And yet his very vocal opponents say that when he was in power he perverted democracy. Why?

SULLIVAN: I think there's a bit of sour grapes there, but I also think there's probably a bit of truth to it in that his party, Thai Rak Thai, had such an overwhelming majority in the Thai parliament that they could basically do whatever they want. And I think they got a little heavy handed. And I think that his opponents would tell you that there was too cozy a relationship between Thaksin and some of his business connections.

MONTAGNE: So just briefly, he's back facing corruption charges, says he won't reenter politics, what's next?

SULLIVAN: Well, I don't think you'd find a single Thai who would actually believe that this guy is going to make good on his pledge of not returning to politics. He said it before he got on the airplane in Hong Kong today, that he was through with politics forever, that he was just going to be an ordinary Thai citizen. He said it again at a press conference today after he got back from him bail hearing. But nobody here believes that. And many people here still want Thaksin to be prime minister, because they look back on the days when he was prime minister as a time of prosperity for them. But there's this other segment of the population here, the urban elite - the Bangkok elite in particular - who just hate him and want to see him go away for good. And obviously that hasn't happened.

MONTAGNE: Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan speaking from Bangkok. And you can read a profile of the former Thai leader at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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