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As a stay this week in Chiang Mai has shown me, Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai prime minister forced out by a coup in 2006, isn’t going away as a political force. Chiang Mai and the North are Thaksin’s traditional power base, so, perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly everyone I met in the area was convinced that the economy performed better under Thaksin and that the country would go downhill until he returned. Outside one of Chiang Mai’s older temples, vendors had set up stalls selling bumper stickers, CDs, jackets, T-shirts, and many other items featuring Thaksin’s grinning face. Polls show that Puea Thai, the political party that serves as a proxy for Thaksin, would win the most seats in a theoretical national election, the major reason why the ruling Democrat Party seems wary of calling a poll anytime soon.
The ideas that Thaksin trumpeted also have grown into a much broader movement, which has gone unrecognized by elites in Thailand, who despise Thaksin and see his hand behind every protest. Though Thaksin was hardly an example of democracy as a prime minister, he instilled in rural, poor Thais the idea that their votes mattered – they voted for the populist Thaksin, and he delivered populist economic policies – and, unlike every previous Thai politician, he actually had a real political platform designed to reduce economic inequality. For the poor, who have not benefited from growing trade with China or investment from the West and Japan, Thaksin’s policies resonated.
Now, the red-shirted groups (red was Thaksin’s color) that have formed across the North and other parts of Thailand, have built upon Thaksin’s ideas and created their own self-funded social and political networks, broadcasts, and publications. In fact, hundreds of people now descend on the red shirts’ Chiang Mai offices every day because the protest movement has become their community. And Thailand’s elites will find that it’s a lot harder to shut down a community than to get rid of one man.