Despised in Bangkok, but adored in his hometown

Newin Chidchob (in blue shoes) with Buriram United footballers during training. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE
Newin Chidchob (in blue shoes) with Buriram United footballers during training. -- ST PHOTO: TAN HUI YEE

Mr Newin Chidchob is giving out money.

The politician-turned-football club owner holds a wad of baht as he stoops with hands on knees. His gaze is fixed on his footballers; he has challenged them to kick the ball into a piece of paper taped on the top two corners of the goalpost.

Those who succeed will earn enough for a sumptuous meal at a local restaurant. Those who do not will have to do push-ups.

"Twenty!" He shouts to one player as yet another shot flies wide, breaking out into laughter as the athlete lowers himself onto the pitch for 20 push-ups.

It is hard to square the image of Mr Newin, 56, in Bangkok with the one he has in his hometown of Buriram province.

In the Thai capital, he is known as a wily power broker wooed by former premier Thaksin Shinawatra under the umbrella of the Thai Rak Thai party, but who eventually betrayed his boss after the latter was ousted in 2006 by a military coup.

As a parliamentarian and at times junior minister for over 20 years, he was frequently dogged by allegations of corruption and vote-buying.

In Buriram, north-east Thailand, he is a celebrity of sorts for transforming a nondescript province into a sports tourism destination by channeling his considerable wealth and energy into a local football team, a soccer academy, a 32,600-seat stadium, as well as a Formula One-grade motor racing circuit.

Mr Newin and his father Chai Chidchob are provincial strongmen whose dominance of the region is based on old school patronage networks. Residents say the younger Mr Chidchob laid out the vision that the rest of the province's officials and businessmen followed.

Travel agency owner Amornrat Mongkhonthit, who moved from Bangkok to Buriram five years ago, observes: "I have been here for five years, and no one talks bad about him."

Buriram municipality mayor Kamol Ruangsooksriwong claims that children unhappy with their parents sometimes exclaim: "I will ask Uncle Newin for help."

Mr Newin plays the role of the provincial godfather and benevolent patriarch with great flair.

"We speak directly to the people," he says. "If people have a problem, they send us a message on the Buriram United (football club) fanpage.

"If anyone in the town is mistreated, they come to us," he says.

The savvy businessman tries to sell his club's jersey as a fashion statement against social stratification.

"Rich or poor, civil servants or waiters… nomatter what event they are at, everyone is equal when they wear our team T-shirt," he says. "Everywhere you go, you can wear one Buriram T-shirt without shame because Uncle Newin wears it every day."

For his exploits, he has won admiration, even adulation. The owner of the hotel that I was staying in, upon finding out I planned to interview him, asked if she could meet him as well.

A group of Buriram United fans working at the local comptroller-general's office, whose picture I had happened to take the day before, wanted me to show him their photograph.

Mr Newin was banned from politics for five years in 2007 after the Thai Rak Thai was dissolved by the Constitutional Court for violating election rules. He has not returned to politics since.

Townspeople says life is simply easier when one of Buriram's most famous sons is out of politics.

Rice farmer Manoon Tamnongdee, 49, says: "When Newin was in politics, people outside didn't like Buriram. When we went to gas stations, they didn't want to fill our gas tanks.

"Now it's completely different."

Having said that, his support for Mr Newin is unconditional.

"Right now he says he won't get involved in politics anymore. But who knows?" the farmer says with a shrug.

If he runs for election, he says: "I will support him anyway."

tanhy@sph.com.sg