Who is Thai PM hopeful Srettha Thavisin?

Wilawan Watcharasakwej
Who is Thai PM hopeful Srettha Thavisin? The Pheu Thai Party’s prime ministerial candidate Srettha Thavisin attends a campaign event in Bangkok on May 13, 2023, on the eve of Thailand's general election.

UPDATED at 11:36 a.m. EDT on 2023-08-18

At 1.92-meters (6 feet, 3 inches) tall, Srettha Thavisin towers over other politicians vying to become Thailand’s first civilian prime minister after more than nine years of military-backed rule.

Despite only entering politics in November, the 61-year-old property tycoon has emerged as the frontrunner to lead Southeast Asia’s second largest economy.

Known for his straight-talking style, Srettha was appointed as chief advisor to the “Pheu Thai family,” headed by Paetongtarn Shinawatra, in the lead up to the May general election and quickly became one of the party’s most recognizable faces. On Aug. 2, Pheu Thai announced it would nominate him for prime minister.

As an outsider who has never held office, the businessman nicknamed Nid (which means little) was never considered Pheu Thai’s first choice for prime minister. Paetongtarn, the scion of the billionaire Shinawatra clan, has always been tipped as the frontrunner for that role.

But Srettha’s broad acceptability and solid economic credentials have given him the foundations for the job, according to a commentary in May by Thai researchers as the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

“[M]y enemy is the poverty and disparity of the people. My goal is the better livelihood of all Thai people,” Srettha said Friday in a message posted with a video posted on his Facebook page.

“We are transparent in our work. I come here today to show my innocence to the general public that my activities were done according to the law,” he said in the video as he defended himself against allegations of having committed fraud in his business dealings.

Srettha, who has an estimated net worth of 1.3 billion baht (U.S. $36.6 million), has not been shy to burnish his business experience in his bid for PM. 

After resigning in March as CEO of Sansiri PLC, one of Thailand’s biggest real estate developers, and transferring his shares to his daughter, he said would use his experience to “help propel the country’s economy and society.”

“I also want to make Thailand great again in the eyes of the international community and to lessen the ongoing disparities of the past years,” he said in his resignation letter.

Srettha Thavisin (center) addresses the media at Pheu Thai headquarters in Bangkok after vote counting began in Thailand’s general election, May 14, 2023. [AFP]

The economy and people’s livelihoods have been at the center of his political messaging, while he has steered clear of controversial issues like reform of Thailand’s royal defamation law, known as lèse-majesté. 

The son of a retired army officer, Srettha earned a degree in finance from Claremont Graduate University in the United States. He is married to Dr. Pakpilai Thavisin, a doctor, with whom he has three children.

His ascension to prime minister could “signal an evolution in Thai politics,” according to Dr. Isa Gharti, a public policy researcher at Chiang Mai University.

“Given his background in real estate and not the traditional political elite circle, this might hint at the desire for a more business-oriented approach to governance,” she told BenarNews. 

However, advancing his policy agenda and balancing the entrenched interests of Thailand’s elite and military will take a deft touch, Isa said.

“Navigating this relationship requires a blend of respect, diplomacy, and assertiveness. Srettha, being an outsider to traditional political corridors, might approach this relationship with a fresh perspective,” she said.

“However, to ensure stability and progress, it will be crucial for him to find common ground and collaborate on shared national objectives, while also ensuring that the democratic ethos is not compromised.”

Courting allies

The Pheu Thai Party won 141 out of 500 lower house representative seats in the May 14 election, finishing second behind the Move Forward Party – another arch rival of the royalist military establishment – which won 151 seats. 

It is still uncertain whether Srettha and Pheu Thai can cobble together enough support in Parliament ahead of a vote for prime minister slated for Aug. 22. 

A nine-party Pheu Thai-led coalition now has a total of 238 seats in Thailand’s 750-seat bicameral Parliament. It needs at least 375 votes from the combined house and senate to seat a new prime minister. 

Among its allies are the royalist Bhumjaithai Party, which has 71 seats, and seven smaller parties. It quickly abandoned the election-winning Move Forward Party after military-appointed senators blocked its leader Pita Limjaroenrat’s two attempts to become prime minister. 

On Thursday, the United Thai Nation Party, which put forward former coup leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha as its prime ministerial candidate, said it would join the Pheu Thai alliance.

Prayuth, who overthrew a Pheu Thai government in a 2014 coup, has resigned from the party following its poor showing at the ballot box. 

Pheu Thai has yet to confirm the United Thai Nation party as a member of its alliance. But doing so could put the party in a compromised position – not least with many of its supporters who are fed up with the military’s meddling in politics.

Srettha, who was critical of Prayuth’s government, has personally ruled out working with United Thai Nation and Palang Pracharath, which is led by another ex-general Prawit Wongsuwan. 

However, the latest development raises questions about his sincerity.

Pheu Thai prime ministerial candidates Paetongtarn Shinawatra, daughter of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Srettha Thavisin, a local property tycoon, at a rally in Bangkok, May 12, 2023. [Reuters]

Winning enough votes in Parliament is not the only challenge facing Srettha. 

Chuvit Kamolvisit, a former sex industry titan who is now a graft-busting political activist, has accused him of committing fraud when he was CEO at Sansiri and is calling for an investigation into his business dealings.

On Thursday, Chuvit submitted evidence to the police alleging Srettha of tax fraud and using nominees to siphon money from a subsidiary of his publicly-listed property development company.

Deputy national police chief Gen. Surachate Hakparn has promised to question the alleged nominees – a maid and security guard – though no formal investigation has not been launched. A Senate panel is also looking into issues related to the accusation of tax evasion.

Srettha has denied any wrongdoing and said he would file a defamation suit against Chuvit.

“I confirm that for all thirty years that I was at Sansiri PLC, I did everything by the law,” he told reporters at party headquarters on Friday.

“When I stepped into politics in March, many people warned me that I would face unexpected challenges. But I didn’t believe it would be a mess like this, with so much distortion of the truth.”

Kunnawut Boonreak contributed to this report from Chiang Mai, Thailand.

This report has been updated to add more comments by Srettha Thavisin.


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