Usually taciturn Bangkok taxi drivers weep for joy at airport

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 February, 2008, 12:00am

It takes a lot to make a Bangkok taxi driver weep, yet they were crying by the dozen as they gathered to greet former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on his return to Thailand yesterday from 17 months in self-imposed exile.

Taxi drivers - who mostly hail from the impoverished northeast, Thaksin's core political base - were among the 5,000 supporters who thronged the roads outside the VIP area of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, hoping for a glimpse of a political leader they insisted was the first to care about Thailand's poor.

'I really believed I would not see this day,' said Ananda Boonyaraporn, laughing as he noticed the tears flowing, wiping them with his 'Club' flag.

'Thaksin is coming back ... it is only Thaksin who can save us again. The poor are poor no longer,' he said, as many around him danced and cheered to thumping northern dance tunes.

Chawalit Pratumtim's eyes also welled up as he described the 'love in my heart' for the 58-year-old billionaire telecoms tycoon turned politician, ousted in a military coup in September 2006. 'It's been too long.'

Mr Chawalit, a sugar worker, boarded a bus at 3am to travel from the northeast to reach Bangkok's outskirts in time for Thaksin's 9.55am local-time arrival on a flight from Hong Kong.

'I felt it was very important to be here ... I am very worried about his safety. Many of us feel the same and that is why we came.

'The world has to see just how much he means to us. The more of us are here, the more safe he is.'

Even Thaksin's most bitter opponents during his five-year rule acknowledged his ability to engage poor rural voters in a way no other Thai politician had attempted. A controversial drug crackdown that killed more than 2,500 people, cheap village loans and cheaper health care won sweeping support - and criticism that his policies were unsustainable.

With more than 600 police surrounding the VIP terminal and forming a human wall between supporters and Thaksin's cavalcade, the former prime minister appeared only briefly, in a bow with hands clasped in a traditional wai greeting. Screams and chants of 'Thaksin, Thaksin' echoed off the buildings, having built up as news spread that Thaksin's plane had landed.

And it was not just the poor and working classes who turned up. Lawmakers from the Thaksin-backed People Power Party eagerly worked the crowds, including Arisamam Phongreungrong, a popular crooner.

Inside the terminal, all 110 banned former lawmakers from Thaksin's outlawed Thai Rak Thai political machine waited to greet their former patron. Some of them had been frequent visitors to Hong Kong and London during his exile, particularly after the PPP's landslide election victory in December.