A “godfather” of Thai politics is using cash and contacts to transform his once poor, forgotten rice-farming fiefdom into an unlikely sporting paradise, complete with a football stadium and racetrack set to host the MotoGP.
Newin Chidchob, a 58-year-old native son of Buriram in Thailand’s agrarian northeast, has enticed super-rich investors into his vision of a sports hub amid the rice fields.
The swaggering former MP has already delivered two venues that now dominate Buriram, a sleepy province whose 30,000 population could be seated more than three times over in them.
First, in 2011, came the imposing “Thunder Castle,” a mega millions football stadium purpose-built for leading Thai Premier League side Buriram United.
It was followed three years later by a USD58.9 million (THB2 billion) racing circuit, the first Formula One certified track in Thailand.
According to Thai sports authorities, the circuit secured the rights this week to stage a leg of the prestigious 2018 MotoGP, a personal coup for Newin who has been lobbying hard to bring the event to his flagship venue.
The motorcycling extravaganza would pour millions of dollars into Buriram, which was once among Thailand’s poorest provinces.
“I wanted to create something that this country didn’t have,” Newin told AFP from the grandstand as GT race teams prepared for a recent competition.
“Now we’ve changed this town from being a place people pass through, from a city with no tourists, to one that now has around three million visitors a year.”
Thanks to the sporting makeover, Buriram is a rare pocket of economic vibrancy in northeastern Thailand, a farming region whose development lags far behind Bangkok and the tourist destinations of the beach-streaked south.
Locals are the first to say that none of it would be possible without Newin, known by some as the “Baron of Buriram.”
“We never dreamed we would have these kind of stadiums,” said school teacher Janpen Pansri, one of many residents wearing the blue kit of Buriram’s football team.
“But whenever Newin announces he’s going to do something, he does it,” she added. “We all give our hearts to him.”
Much of Thailand is carved up into the domains of influential families who dominate local political and economic life.
Buriram is no different.
Patronage, power and ruthless decision-making have shaped Newin’s rise to the top.
Before making his mark with sport, Newin spent two decades in Thailand’s bear-pit political arena, trading favours and switching teams just in time to land on the winning side.
“It’s over boss,” he famously told his former friend, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra by phone in 2008 after throwing his weight behind the rival Democrats — a mercenary move that earned him the moniker “The Kingmaker.”
Newin was later banned from politics for vote-buying and retreated to his power base in Buriram, bringing his passions — football and big bikes — with him.
He bought a small football club based near Bangkok, moved it to Buriram, and housed the squad in a gleaming stadium which towers above the ramshackle, one-storey homes common to the area.
Seven years on, Buriram United is one of the kingdom’s top teams — sponsored by a Who’s Who of Bangkok’s business elite — with five league titles and regular appearances in the Asian Champions league.
Newin, often seen cruising through town on his Ducati, also drew on wealthy Bangkok friends to erect the 1,400-acre racing circuit.
The track is named after its top sponsor Chang Beer, a booze giant owned by one the kingdom’s richest and most influential billionaires.
Newin says sport not politics has brought the boom to Buriram.
“I was a politician for over 20 years, but I couldn’t make people in this city richer or happier in the way I have in the past seven years of being a regular person,” he said.
“For those who live in other provinces — I hope that they will also have at least one person in their town is like me.”
Man of the people
Newin boasts of the speed in which his stadiums were built — a contrast to the delays that hobble government-backed infrastructure projects.
“No-one (in Buriram) is more influential than him,” said Chaiya Chotikavanik, a retired politics professor from Buriram Rajabhat University.
Even without an official post, “Newin has the type of power that means if he suggests how things should be, people listen,” Chotikavanik added.
This influence has been carefully burnished by his man-of-the-people image.
Renowned for eating at local pad thai joints, Newin readily lends his name — and cash — to all manner of community events.
Thousands of jobs have been created by the stadiums, with 5,000 new hotel rooms and hundreds of restaurants built in their wake.
But the biggest beneficiary of Buriram’s sporting ascent is likely to be the wily Newin himself.
Politics was like “living in hell,” he says with a grin, swatting away rumours of a return to the fray once Thailand emerges from junta control.
“Now that I’m out of it I feel like I’m in heaven. Now wherever I go people love me.”