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Deposed Thai Premier Maintains Rural Popularity

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVEN INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The former prime minister of Thailand appeared in court today. He pleaded not guilty to corruption charges in the latest episode of a dramatic career. Two years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed in a coup while out of the country. Two week ago, he returned to Thailand to face the charges. Thaksin says he'll never return to politics, but the billionaire telecommunications mogul remains hugely popular among Thailand's poor.

NPR's Michael Sullivan went to northern Thailand to find out why.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Most Thais will tell you they don't expect much from their politicians and that's pretty much what they get. But Thaksin, many rural voters insist, is different.

(Soundbite of pigs squealing)

Adivin Mansong(ph) keeps pigs in the village of Sanpatong near the northern city of Chiang Mai. For her, Thaksin is the man who started the village loan program shortly after he took office, which allowed Adivin to borrow $400 to start raising pigs. Three years later her business is booming. Today, she's got nearly two dozen pigs almost ready for market and two sows about to deliver a whole bunch more.

Ms. ADIVIN MANSONG (Thaksin Shinawatra supporter): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I used to work as a day laborer before I got the loan, she says, and we barely had enough money to eat. Now we're doing much better, and I've saved enough to send my two kids to school in the city. None of this, she says, would've been possible without Thaksin.

Ms. MANSONG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I don't care about the corruption charges, she says. There's corruption in every government. At least Thaksin gave the poor people something. And that's more, she says, than the other politicians did.

Unidentified Woman (Resident, Thailand): (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SOM SAK UNTAI (Clinician, Thailand): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: At the village health clinic, more fans of the former prime minister - in particular, his 30 baht healthcare scheme - universal healthcare for about a dollar a visit. The 74-year-old getting her blood pressure checked and a refill on her pills, says she wouldn't be able to come if she had to pay more. The center's clinician, Som Sak Untai(ph) says there are many like her.

Mr. UNTAI: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: About 15 people come to the clinic everyday, he says, and about a third of them probably wouldn't come if there was no 30 baht healthcare. So Thaksin deserves credit for that, he says, and for the village loan program and for his war on drugs.

(Soundbite of chopping)

Drugs are a big problem, not just in the cities but in rural villages like Sanpatong, too, as these farmers, readying their fields, are quick to point out. Villagers here say Thaksin's war on drugs is the number one reason they support him even today, nearly two years after his ouster.

Jum Jai Panyamong(ph) has a 17-year-old daughter and a lot of worries about Yaba, the Thai name for methamphetamines.

Ms. JUM JAI PANYAMONG (Resident, Thailand): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: We have a big problem with Yaba in my village, she says. My neighbor's son is only 12 and he's already involved with drugs. When Thaksin was prime minister, she says, his war on drugs made our schools and our village safer.

Public opinion polls show most Thais agree, even though the war on drugs drew criticism from human rights groups. An estimated 2,500 people were killed during the government's 2003 campaign, many critics say in extrajudicial killings by overzealous police.

But farmer Jum Jai is skeptical.

Ms. PANYAMONG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: I don't know about anywhere else, but in my village, she says, we know what was involved in the drug trade. And the people the police targeted here were guilty, she says, 100 percent.

To Jum Jai and her neighbors in this village it doesn't really matter that the war on drugs failed to catch any big fish, nor does it matter that the village loan program has left some farmers deep in debt. And none of the villagers here care much about the corruption charges either, even if they're true. Here, the villagers say, Thaksin delivered. And they'd have him back in a minute if they could.

Mr. TITINOM PONSUTURAK(ph) (Political Analyst): He's got the voters support. The majority of voters in a fair vote would still go for him and Thaksin could still be elected prime minister.

SULLIVAN: But, says political analyst Titinom Ponsuturak, Thaksin must first beat the corruption charges against him and get the five year ban on his participation in politics lifted.

In the meantime, Thaksin insists he's through with politics. But analyst Titinom says few Thais really believe him.

Mr. PONSUTURAK: It's in his personality. He's a fighter. He likes to be the first mover. He likes to have one leg up on you. And he has convictions, he has resources, and he thinks that he is the messiah of Thai politics.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, 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.

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.