Former politician turned football club owner and entrepreneur, Newin “Uncle Ne” Chidchob has finally found true happiness and his place in life
A former wheeler-dealer who once pounded the pavements around Government House, Newin Chidchob, or “Uncle Ne” has he prefers to be known, now spends a great deal of his time clad in a Buriram United Football Club jersey and knee-length shorts sitting astride his favourite big bike and riding the streets of his native Buri Ram.
“I’m happiest here, simply being ‘Uncle Ne’ and chairman of Buriram FC,” Newin tells the Sunday Nation happily as he gazes out over the 12 Shiva Garden, a new park, green space and tourist attraction in the North-Eastern city.
“I now realise that without any [political] post I can give more happiness to the people.”
Newin, who started his political career almost 30 years ago, is known as the man who demonstrated that there are neither permanent friends nor permanent foes – only permanent interests – in politics.
Named by his father after the notorious Burmese General Ne Win, the former politician from Buri Ram played a major role in the collapse of the Democrat-led government, brought his faction to support Thaksin Shinawatra under the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party, before defecting from the party and taking his support away from the-then premier to support Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva in his bid to become prime minister.
He also served as a minister under three prime ministers, Banharn Silpa-archa, Chuan Leekpai, and Thaksin.
In 2007, Newin was banned from politics for five years following the dissolution of the former Thai Rak Thai party by the Constitutional Court ruling. He decided to leave the political arena to devote his life and time to his hometown Buri Ram, 410 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.
Once a backwater province in the lower northeast, the 57-year-old former politician turned the provincial seat into a centre for sport and tourism in just six years.
And he’s most proud of his accomplishments, “not so much of my political career or even the several ministerial posts I’ve held, but of my devotion to my birthplace,” he laughs.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give back to my community. When I first entered politics, my intention was to bring a better life and a better income to my people and now I have accomplished my goal,” he says proudly.
“The 20 years I spent in politics count for nothing compared to the past six years. I can do so much more than as a politician,” he says.
As the president of Buriram United FC, Newin created a number of eye-catching landmarks in Buri Ram, including the I-Mobile Stadium, a Fifa-standard soccer stadium with a capacity of 32,000 seats; the Chang International Circuit for motorsport racing, the first in Thailand to meet FIA Grade 1 and FIM Grade A standards and with a huge capacity of 50,000 seats; and Amari Buriram United, Thailand’s first soccer-themed hotel. The Bt370-million Buriram Castle mall is the latest major project.
Previously Buri Ram has attracted only about 600,000 tourists a year, but the football club increased the number up to 1.8 million. With the opening of the race circuit and the community mall Buriram Castle, visitors should surpass 2.5 million people per year.
“These landmark destinations have created jobs and income for people in this city. The venues have increased the value of assets in the surrounding land area by no less than 200 per cent,” Newin says.
The political big gun turned football-club owner has never stopped thinking big. In addition to his determination to make the provincial capital one of the top five visited cities in Thailand, his ultimate goal is to turn into a health and wellness centre for visitors from abroad, and especially the Asean nations.
Today, he says, Buri Ram is almost a complete city of sport. It’s home to the greatest football club in the country and indeed Asean as well as to a racing circuit with international standards.
But these are not enough to convince tourists to stay on after a match or race and enjoy fitness, leisure, and a retreat in the city.
“My ultimate goal is to build the city into a hub of football, motor sport and finally a centre for health and wellness,” he says.
With the 10 Southeast Asian nations forming the Asean Economic Community at the end of last year, Newin has set a target of attracting one per cent of the bloc’s 600 million population – or 6 million visitors a year – to stay in Buri Ram.
If each visitor were to spend an average of Bt5,000, this would bring in at least Bt30 billion per year for the city, he says.
“My dream will become true within 10 years,” he vows.
Not only is Newin investing big in Buri Ram’s infrastructure, he is also working to change the attitudes and mind-sets of its people.
“They now understand that it’s not a case of ‘winner takes all’ but that we win or lose together. When you do something, you mustn’t think or care about whether others will get the same or more from what you have done,” he says.
“What’s important is doing it and feeling happy about it. With that attitude, people will give you their full cooperation,” he says.
“I always tell them resources are limited but creativity is unlimited. Everything that happens here in Buri Ram is created from people’s hearts and hands.”
Asked if he ever misses or thinks about politics and the several ministerial portfolios, Newin doesn’t hesitate. “No,” he says firmly.
“When I watch the political news I always pour ceremonial water and wish the karma of those who remain in politics to be over,” he says, using the Thai religious ceremony of pouring water to dedicate merit to the departed, as a metaphor.
Despite still seeing some of his old friends from his days as a politician, Newin never discusses politics with them. Indeed, he even refuses to talk politics with his dad Chai, a veteran politician who is still active in the political arena. After the 2014 coup, Newin’s father was appointed by the junta as a member of the now defunct National Reform Council.
“If you want to talk about politics, go and talk with Gen Prayut [Chan-o-cha, the prime minister]. Don’t talk to me,” he says loudly and clearly when asked if he thinks an election will be held next year as laid out in the junta’s road map and whether Thaksin’s camp could win the election.
“You’d be better asking me whether Gama [Alexandre Gama, a Brazilian football manager who is Buriram United manager] will extend his contract or not.”
Indeed, Newin appears eager to talk about football.
So what is his view of the outlook for Thai football under new Football Association of Thailand (FAT) chief Pol Gen Somyot Poompanmoung , whom Newin supported to topple the long-time FAT president Makudi, aka Bung Yee?
“Thai football under the new chief will absolutely be better than under his predecessor. I believe that Thai football will return to the top 10 in Asia within four years,” says Newin who has played a major role in scrutinising the football governing body and its chiefs.
“The ‘fair’ policies Somyot used in his election campaign early this month are perfect, the Buriram FC owner says.
“They meet the demand of concerned people in Thai football.”
And while politics remain an off-boundary subject, he does however urge all Thais to cast their ballots in the upcoming national referendum for the charter draft scheduled for July.
“It’s the only event in which we can exercise our rights without being called for ‘attitude adjustment’ or arrested by the police,” he says.
In his Buri Ram sanctuary, Newin, who spends most of his time with his football club and other businesses, says he enjoys the feeling of being accepted.
“It doesn’t matter who I am. What’s important is how much people recognise and have faith in you.
“These days I’m absolutely sure that the people in Buri Ram and even in the country love me and have faith in me much more than when I was politician or even a minister,” he says, breaking off the interview to greet a group of young people who want to have their photo taken with him.