July 6, 2007 / 2:35 PM / 12 years ago

NEWSMAKER-City takeover keeps Thaksin in the political limelight

BANGKOK, July 6 (Reuters) - As far as Manchester City fans are concerned, Thaksin Shinawatra is a billionaire with the war chest needed to bring trophies and European soccer to a success-starved club.

They probably couldn’t care two cents that he was once the Prime Minister of Thailand.

But to the educated urban classes in his homeland, he is a power-hungry crony capitalist who plundered the economy, subverted democracy and led one of the most corrupt governments in Thai history.

Thaksin’s estimated 81 million pounds ($163.8 million) takeover of City could herald a return to the glory days for the club, whose last major success came in 1976 when they beat Newcastle United to win the League Cup.

The former Bangkok policeman has already put his cash to good use by paying off the club’s debt and hiring a high-profile manager in former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson who signed a three-year contract with the club on Friday.

City fans hope a transfer kitty Thaksin has pledged to strengthen the squad will be as much as 50 million pounds.

But if his last 10 months are anything to go by, City may wonder what they’ve got themselves into.

Thaksin was booted out in a coup last year and is being investigated on more than a dozen counts of alleged corruption and asset concealment. More than $1.5 billion has been frozen in his Thai bank accounts.

On May 30, a junta-appointed tribunal found Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party guilty of electoral fraud and banned him and 110 party executives from politics for five years.

The generals had hoped he would vanish from the public eye, but analysts say the takeover will only tighten his mesmerising grip on a country obsessed with English soccer.

“This is all public relations. He fears he is losing his political power and he is fighting back,” said Wanchai Rujawongsanti, a sports columnist with the Bangkok Post.

“He wants his job back and he’s using Thailand’s love of football to maintain his high profile here,” he said.

CITY TAKEOVER

The City takeover is third time lucky for the ethnic Chinese former telecoms tycoon.

In 2003, Fulham owner Mohamed al Fayed rebuffed his offer for the club, and Thaksin followed up a year later with another bid — also unsuccessful — for Liverpool.

But while Thaksin has proven business acumen, his knowledge of soccer is basic at best.

A “keen” Liverpool fan who struggled to name key players, Thaksin was branded clueless by Thai national team skipper Kiatisak Senamuang after he criticised the team’s performance in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers.

“He doesn’t even know how football is played,” Kiatisak said. “It’s not as simple as buying a foreign club.”

Born in 1949 into a family of Chinese silk merchants, Thaksin became a policeman before winning a scholarship to study criminal justice in the United States.

In 1987, he started a small computer dealership, which evolved into Shin Corp, a telecoms conglomerate which made him one of Thailand’s richest and most powerful men.

Having entered politics, he won unprecedented landslide election victories in 2001 and 2005 on the back of policies promising rural development, cheap loans and professional healthcare for the price of a bowl of noodles.

But his rise was not without controversy.

In his first term, the self-styled “CEO premier” convinced corruption investigators he had made “an honest mistake” in failing to declare millions of dollars of shares signed over to his maid, his driver and a security guard.

A 90-day war on drugs in 2003 showed he was tough on crime but the deaths of 2,500 people outraged human rights groups, who said most of the deaths were extrajudicial killings.

IRON FIST

Thaksin also drew flak for his iron-fisted crackdown in Thailand’s insurgency-plagued Muslim south, and has been widely accused of muzzling his critics and stifling press freedom.

Last year’s tax-free $1.9 billion sale of his family’s company Shin Corp to a Singapore state company angered the educated classes, who took to the streets to demand his head for corruption and abuse of power.

Few Thais believe he will be in the political wilderness for long.

“Buying this club is a shrewd move,” said political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“The Thai authorities didn’t want to let this deal go through. If Manchester City start winning matches, people will go wild for Thaksin.”

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