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In Thaksin's rural heartland, millions of farmers pose a quiet threat to traditional politics

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KAMBON, Thailand - Here, in a village where electricity is still a novelty, they'll quickly tell you who was responsible for bringing change to this long-neglected corner of Thailand.

Thaksin Shinawatra is a former prime minister, a billionaire businessman and the brother of the current prime minister. He has lived for years in luxurious, self-imposed exile in Dubai, but is still widely seen as Thailand's most powerful politician. He is despised by his opponents among Thailand's traditional elite, who disdain him as a corrupt leader who spent billions of the government's dollars to amass a huge following among the poor and uneducated.

But around here he is a saint.

"Ten years ago, the road you drove on to get here was dirt. There was no electricity, there was no irrigation," said Pichai Poltaklang, a retired primary schoolteacher and local organizer for Thaksin's political movement, commonly known as the "Red Shirts." He ticks off government programs: the virtually free health care, the low-cost education loans, the old-age pension. "Before Thaksin came to power we were left out."

As Thailand faces an immense social and political divide, a schism pitting the rural poor against a traditional urban elite that has again ignited bloody protests in the streets of Bangkok, places like Kambon are at the heart of Thaksin's power.

There are tens of thousands of villages like this scattered across Thailand's north and northeast, and millions of villagers who Thaksin can call upon if the scattered protests of recent weeks descend into full-scale street violence and his sister's government is threatened.

If no one here is calling for bloodshed, a quiet threat is always implicit. Occasionally, it's explicit.

"Across the northeast we can seize every government office in every town, in every city, in every province," said Thongplean Boonphunga, a middle-aged rice farmer. The elite may deride Thaksin's followers as uneducated bumpkins, but, she notes, the country people have numbers on their side.

"They can't control the whole country. We can," he said.

Kambon is in Thailand's northeast, a sprawling, populous region of rice paddies and small farms that was long ignored by successive governments in Bangkok. As Thailand's economy boomed, and the country became one of Southeast Asia's financial powerhouses, millions of farmers struggled in villages that had barely changed since the days of their grandparents.

But that changed under Thaksin, who was born in the north, and who used millions made as a telecommunications magnate to vault himself into politics. He became prime minister in 2001.

To his rural followers, Thaksin is a man who understands their plight and looked for ways to improve their lives.

To his many critics, he took a cold look at Thailand's demographics, focusing on populous but poor regions where he knew government spending would make an immediate impact and bring followers.

The followers came in droves.

"The Thaksin government gave them concrete moments in their lives" where they saw real change, said David Streckfuss, an American scholar based in Thailand. "They also realized their power" in electing him over and over, he said.

Thaksin quickly became Thailand's most popular politician, with that popularity holding on tightly after he was ousted in a 2006 military coup, and then after he went into exile to avoid a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated. He has not been back to Thailand since 2008.

The 2006 coup split Thailand's social divisions wide open, and set the stage for years of on-and-off political turmoil. Since then, elections have been interspersed with carefully orchestrated chaos, weather by Thaksin's "Red Shirts" or by the "Yellow Shirts" of the traditional elite.

The most recent trouble began in November, when the ruling party — led by Thaksin's younger sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — tried to push an amnesty bill through Parliament. Critics said it was designed to allow Thaksin back into Thailand.

Even though the government backed down on the amnesty bill, protesters flooded into government buildings, trying to force the collapse of Yingluck's government. The protesters, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, say Thaksin voters are easily swayed by his populist policies, and they are demanding the creation of an unelected "people's council" to administer the country.

The political standoff resulted in three days of intense clashes between protesters and police. But the clashes abruptly ended Tuesday and both both sides called an informal truce to celebrate the revered king's 86th birthday on Thursday.

While he used his annual birthday speech to call for stability, King Bhumibol Adulyadej made no direct comments on the political crisis.

In Kambon, like everywhere else in Thailand, they're waiting to see what will happen Friday, when the enforced unity of the royal birthday is over and politics will again rule. The autumn harvest is underway, and in the fields the air is sweet with the smell of freshly cut rice stalks.

No one here is eager for protests now, when there is so much work to do — major Red Shirt protests tend to coincide with the spring hot season, when farmers have more free time — but protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has vowed that "our battle" will resume on Friday.

So they are closely watching what is happening in Bangkok.

Noothuan Wongthong, a 52-year-old farmer with a lilting voice and wool gloves to protect her hands from the dried rice stalks she hacked with a hand-made sickle, was working for a neighbour on a recent morning.

Like her neighbours, she can quickly list programs that have benefited her: the guaranteed price for rice, the loans, the medical care that has paid for repeated blood tests after she began to grow strangely tired. She worries what will happen if protesters drive Yingluck from power.

She's got a new Yamaha scooter, and a 27-inch TV. She gets more money when she sells her own rice, and is paid more when she works for other farmers. She doesn't want to lose her grip on the lower rungs of Thailand's middle-class life.

"Before Thaksin, the money never reached us here," she said. "Now it does."

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