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Thaksin Declares Victory in Thailand Elections

  • Scott Bobb

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has declared victory in Thailand's election, with what appears to be a massive mandate. Correspondent Scott Bobb has this profile of Mr. Thaksin, whose business acumen and populist policies have made him the most powerful man in Thailand.

It was midday in downtown Bangkok and Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was campaigning for votes in the lunchtime crowd in one of the area's narrow alleys.

Shop owners and office workers pressed around him. Some offered fruit and flowers which he accepted with a bow.

The head of a multi-billion dollar telecommunications empire and reputedly Thailand's richest man, Prime Minister Thaksin explains why, after a tumultuous first term, he wanted to be re-elected.

"I want to eradicate poverty. Poverty is very important. We have to help them [poor people]," he said.

Thaksin Shinawatra was born on July 26, 1949, into a family of silk merchants originally from southern China. He attended school in his native Chang Mai province, in northern Thailand, and graduated from Thailand's Royal Police Academy in 1973. Five years later he received a doctorate in criminal justice from Sam Houston (Texas) University in the United States.

In the mid-1980s, he founded an electronic paging and mobile telephone company that grew into a communications satellites corporation and made him one of the richest men in Thailand.

He entered politics only 10 years ago. He served in a coalition government as foreign minister and deputy-prime minister before founding his own party in 1998, the Thai Rak Thai, or Thais Love Thais, party.

In the 2001 elections, he pledged to end poverty, reduce dependence on exports and restore economic prosperity following the 1997 Asia financial crisis. His party won 295 of the 500 seats in parliament.

After surviving a legal challenge to his victory, Mr. Thaksin set about delivering on some of his promises and launched a subsidized public health program, low-cost loans for rural poor, and village-based micro-industries.

He also lowered interest rates, leading to a consumer-based economic boom, and paid off early billions of dollars worth of international loans left over from the 1997 financial crisis.

However, human rights groups accuse Mr. Thaksin's government of heavy-handed tactics in campaigns to suppress the illegal drug trade and a separatist insurgency in the Muslim-dominated south.

Economists say his populist programs are not sustainable. And civic groups accuse his government of rolling back democratic advances of the 1990s.

An editor with the Nation media group who has had several confrontations with the Thaksin government, Kavi Chongkittavorn, says although Mr. Thaksin has delivered on the economy, he has not shown similar support for democratic freedoms.

"Prime Minister Thaksin has never given his commitment that he will protect democracy, human rights and civil liberties at all," he said.

Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai disagrees saying Mr. Thaksin supports democracy but is driven by a desire to make a difference.

"He's a leader who would like to bring about changes to Thai society. And I think after some years, people will realize more and more his contribution," said Mr. Sathirathai.

The prime minister, who enjoyed his hectic day on the campaign trail last week, told VOA that despite the frustrations, he still likes the job.

"I like it more because I can do a lot for the people. My second term will be much better," said Mr. Thaksin.

Mr. Thaksin has promised during his second term to focus on developing Thailand's infrastructure. He is planning on building multibillion-dollar road, railway and communications projects which, given their size and price tags, guarantee he will continue to be controversial.