Football, Thaksin on Thai minds as referendum nears

 

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson Thu Aug 16, 11:21 PM ET

Members of Thailand's former ruling party look at a giant portrait of Thaksin Shinawatra during a protest against the proposed post-coup constitution, at the People Power party in Bangkok, 16 August. Thais go to the polls Sunday in a referendum seen as crucial to the country's future but many voters have football on their minds instead -- giving a likely publicity boost for their ousted premier.(AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul)

AFP Photo: Members of Thailand’s former ruling party look at a giant portrait of Thaksin Shinawatra during…

BANGKOK (AFP) – Thais go to the polls Sunday in a referendum seen as crucial to the country’s future but many voters have football on their minds instead — giving a likely publicity boost for their ousted premier.

Bangkok resident Chitchanu Nivatvitit says that while he will vote in the referendum on a new constitution, his mind will be concentrating on the derby between English Premiership sides Manchester United and Manchester City.

Chitchanu supports Premiership champions United, while City have just been bought by Thaksin Shinawatra — the prime minister ousted in a military coup here last September.

Chitchanu reckons that in a football-made country like Thailand, the match eclipses the much-touted poll.

“Of course the Manchester derby match is more important and more exciting to me,” said Chitchanu, who works for an electrical appliance company.

“As a Red Army fan, I want my team to face the team of former prime minister Thaksin to prove that my team is the best.

“I am on the opposite side to Thaksin, both on politics and sports.”

Sunday’s referendum — on a constitution drafted by a military-appointed council installed after last year’s coup — is the new regime’s first test at the ballot box.

The junta says the document will clear the way for elections by the year’s end, while opponents fear it will only entrench the role of the military and bureaucrats and reduce the power of elected politicians.

Campaigning is tilted heavily in the government’s favour, with half the country under martial law and a new law threatening prison for anyone convicted of obstructing the referendum.

But as the ballots are being counted, the military may be upstaged by the very man they deposed last September: Thaksin’s newly-acquired team plays at 7:30 pm Thai time on polling day.

“I supported Thaksin when he was in power, and I want Manchester City to win,” said Kesorn Karoon, a 53-year-old motorcycle taxi driver.

“Politics is in chaos, I think I will stay out of it. I don’t know anything about the constitution. I don’t know what it is and I don’t have a copy,” he told AFP.

“It will be more exciting to see if Manchester City score.”

Thaksin, who has labelled the proposed constitution a “political revenge” against him, took control of Manchester City in late July after purchasing 75 percent of the club’s shares.

City now sit proudly in second place in the English Premiership after a win at West Ham last Saturday and a 1-0 victory against Derby on Wednesday.

London-based billionaire Thaksin has already wooed fans in England, with media there reporting that City supporters have nicknamed him Frank, because his name bears a slight resemblance to crooner Frank Sinatra.

A smattering of sky-blue Manchester City T-shirts bearing Thaksin’s name have already been spotted on the streets on Bangkok.

The charismatic businessman’s ability to steal the headlines has infuriated the junta as it struggles to pin him down on corruption charges.

Thailand’s Supreme Court on Tuesday issued an arrest warrant for Thaksin and his wife over a land deal, but the former first couple have said they will not return home over fears for their safety.

Chris Baker, co-author of books on Thai politics, said Thaksin is keen to stay in the spotlight to protect his assets.

“He’s primarily a businessman and obviously the best way to counter the judicial assault on him and his money is to keep his political profile up,” he told AFP.

Baker thinks Sunday’s referendum may end up as a vote on the legitimacy of the coup — a sentiment echoed on Bangkok’s streets.

“I did not read (the charter) because I did not receive a copy of it. My vote is based on the government’s performance,” said 27-year-old tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) driver Paiwan Phewngarm.

As the poll and derby match near, Internet chat rooms and street corners buzz with the chatter of football and politics, but not everyone thinks the two go hand-in-hand.

“I like Thaksin, but the decision to buy Manchester City was not enough to make me turn,” said United fan Ananta Warisnasatorn, 31, as she touted jasmine flowers outside a Buddhist shrine.

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