-

BANGKOK - Thailand`s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was threatened Tuesday by a military coup, is a self-made billionaire whose autocratic style of leadership sowed deep divisions.

The 57-year-old tycoon, one of the wealthiest men in Thailand, built his political success on support from the nation`s poor, highlighting his own rags-to-riches story.

Opponents despised the former policeman for some of his autocratic tactics, but supporters admired the charismatic leader for his get-tough governance and economic stewardship.

Thaksin finally bowed in April to months of protests demanding his resignation for abuse of power after a huge protest vote against his rule in weekend elections. He announced the decision after talks with Thailand`s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But since April the political crisis has limped on with the prime minister`s opponents accusing him of political posturing while polls to elect a new prime minister were repeatedly delayed.

Thaksin`s great-grandfather was a poor Chinese immigrant who made a fortune as a private gambling tax collector, and by the time Thaksin was born on July 26, 1949, his family was one of the most prominent in northern Chiang Mai province.

But his father suffered a slump in fortunes and Thaksin began school while helping him run a struggling coffee shop and cinema.

Thaksin joined the police force in 1973 and soon after turned his hand to small business. His early ventures, including running a silk shop and film distributorship, failed but undeterred he moved onto new technologies.

In 1981, he started a business leasing IBM computers which also floundered but led to a string of profitable contracts. And he won his first telecommunications concession in 1987.

Thaksin quit the police force the same year after reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel to found the Shinawatra Computer and Communications group.

The company included a unit that evolved into Thailand`s largest mobile phone operator AIS.

He served briefly in a coalition government but did not emerge at the forefront of Thai politics until 1998, when he formed the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party.

In a country where ballots traditionally were cast on regional loyalties, his party launched Thailand`s first policy platform.

Thaksin promised to use his business savvy to restore Thailand`s fortunes after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, vowing to boost the fortunes of poor villages and to move away from International Monetary Fund reforms.

Under his brand of grass-roots "Thaksinomics", Thailand eradicated the IMF debt from the 1997-1998 financial crisis. The stock market rebounded, real estate surged -- and this year, economic growth is up five percent.

His novel approach won Thai Rak Thai the biggest election victory ever in Thailand, capturing 295 of 500 seats in the lower house of parliament in 2001. A February 2005 vote extended his grip to 377 seats.

But corruption allegations dogged him. In August 2001, just six months into his term, he narrowly escaped conviction on charges that he wrongly concealed assets which could have banned him from politics for five years.

His habit of installing relatives in key military and police posts has angered opponents, as have persistent allegations of wrongdoing in his business dealings.

His heavy-handed tactics have also raised alarms after more than 2,200 suspected drug offenders died in apparent extrajudicial killings in his 2003 campaign against drugs.

Two highly controversial clashes with southern Islamic separatists that resulted in hundreds more deaths further fuelled concern over his authoritarian leanings.

In February, he dodged another possible career-ending inquiry after the Constitutional Court ruled out investigating conflict of interest accusations -- the same allegations that set off the country`s latest political crisis.

Thaksin reacted to the crisis with a characteristic mix of defiance and indifference, but his gamble to call early elections to seek a new mandate backfired when the opposition boycotted the polls and millions abstained in protest.

09/19/2006 18:23 GMT

Copyright © 2006