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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 July 2007, 06:47 GMT 07:47 UK



By Jonathan Head
BBC South-East Asia correspondent

In Manchester, he is simply known as Frank. But in his native Thailand he has had many names, some a lot less flattering.

Thaksin Shinawatra
Thaksin's tenure as Thai PM was dogged by controversy
Thaksin Shinawatra is the most powerful political figure in modern Thai history. He swept into office in 2001 with the largest share of the vote ever achieved, and became the first Prime Minister to win a second term in 2005, with an even greater majority.

But he also divided the country like no other politician.

Born and brought up in the northern city of Chiang Mai, he began his career in Thailand's notoriously corrupt police force, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and completing a Phd in Texas before resigning.

His real ambition was to succeed in business. His first ventures, selling silk, then running cinemas, failed, leaving him near bankruptcy.

Then, through his old contacts, he won a contract to provide IBM computers to the entire police force. But his real breakthrough came with the explosion of the telecoms industry in the late 1980s.

Starting with a pager service, Thaksin went on to pioneer mobile phone networks in Thailand and moved on to launch the country's first telecoms satellites.

This coincided with spectacular economic growth in Asia and Thaksin became enormously wealthy. All these businesses, though, depended on government concessions, and Thaksin's critics have raised questions over how he was able to win those concessions.

He was lucky not to be badly hit when the Thai currency was dramatically devalued during the 1997 Asian financial meltdown. Several of his competitors went bankrupt.

At the time many Thais were disillusioned with the corrupt and chaotic political system that had allowed the crisis to happen. Thaksin, who had three brief spells as a minister in the 1990s, decided to offer them a new kind of politics.

He formed his own party, Thai Rak Thai, or 'Thais Love Thais'. Thanks to his wealth it was better funded than any other and politicians from other parties defected to him in droves.

He borrowed modern electioneering techniques from the US and, for the first time, offered a platform of policies that would directly help the rural poor, who make up the bulk of the electorate.

He promised to be a CEO leader, a Prime Minister who would run the country as successfully as he ran his businesses.

The voters loved it. He was a charismatic campaigner, and when elected, a very visible leader who courted publicity.

But from early on in his administration he proved intolerant of criticism, and was accused of intimidating the media into submission. His family company, Shin Corp, bought Thailand's only independent TV station.

Twenty-one journalists were sacked after complaining of editorial interference. Newspapers feared losing vital advertising if they ran negative coverage.

It was the whiff of corruption that sparked off the first serious protest movement against Thaksin

His human rights record caused alarm as well. In 2003 Thaksin announced a "War on Drugs", saying dealers had to die. Over the next year more than 2,000 people were killed, execution-style. Among them were women and children.

The government insisted they were killed by rival drug gangs, but human rights groups believe police death squads were responsible.

Thaksin also badly mishandled a smouldering separatist conflict in the Muslim south, which became a full-scale insurgency during his administration.

More than 2,000 have died there too, some during operations where the military was accused of great brutality. Thaksin dismissed international expressions of concern over these issues, retorting at one point that the UN was not his father.

It was the whiff of corruption though, and the failure to separate his family's business interests with those of the country's, that sparked off the first serious protest movement against Thaksin.

He had promised Thais that as he was so rich they never need worry about corruption under him. But a number of government policy decisions did appear to favour Shin Corp.

Thailand's biggest infrastructure project, the new international airport in Bangkok, was mired in accusations of corruption. Then the Shinawatras sold Shin Corp to an investment arm of the Singapore government in January 2006, for more than a billion pounds.

Thaksin supporters at an anti-coup rally in Bangkok in July 2007
Thaksin still has many supporters in Thailand
The family business had increased in value by nearly four times while Thaksin was in office - and they managed to avoid paying any capital gains tax.

Urban Thais were outraged. Protests in Bangkok grew, numbering tens of thousands of people. The protestors complained that Thailand's courts and independent constitutional bodies were too intimidated by Thaksin's power and wealth to investigate him.

They feared he was putting his own loyalists in key positions throughout the army, the police and the bureaucracy.

He responded by calling an election in April 2006, knowing his rural support would be enough to guarantee another victory. But the main opposition boycotted the election, and after apparent intervention by Thailand's revered King, Thaksin offered to step aside, and the election was annulled.

However, little progress was made in negotiating an end to the political impasse and Thaksin re-installed himself as acting Prime Minister, until the military coup last September that removed him.

The interim government has initiated a number of investigations into Thaksin's affairs, and one case, involving a land purchase by his wife from a government agency, is going to trial. Alleged corruption was one of the main justifications the generals gave for their coup.

Actually proving their cases against him may prove slow and difficult.

If he is convicted on corruption or abuse of power charges, it could put him in breach of the Premier League's fit and proper person test.



SEE ALSO
Thaksin 'not fit to run Man City'
31 Jul 07 |  Man City
Thai court to hear Thaksin case
10 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Thailand considers early election
20 Jun 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Thailand freezes Thaksin's assets
11 Jun 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Thai ex-PM banned from politics
30 May 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Thaksin completes Man City buyout
06 Jul 07 |  Business


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