11 July 2024

Last week’s appointment of former deputy premier Wissanu Krea-ngam as the prime minister’s legal adviser surprised many observers, given Wissanu’s documented health issues and earlier pledge to leave politics for good.

The 72-year-old suffers from cataracts as well as kidney disease that requires daily dialysis. Before announcing his “eventual retirement” from politics last August, Wissanu had served as legal advisor to a string of governments under eight prime ministers since 1991.

His last boss was Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s immediate predecessor, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is now a privy councillor. Wissanu served as deputy prime minister in charge of legal affairs for nine years under Prayut.

Analysts speculated that he only accepted the job offer because it was made by figures in the “old power clique”, namely Prayut and General Prawit Wongsuwan, Wissanu’s fellow deputy PM in the previous government who now leads the coalition’s Palang Pracharath Party.

The speculation is that Wissanu has been deployed to tackle legal issues facing the ruling coalition and ensure it survives for as long as possible.

However, Wissanu denied that the old power clique, remnants of the 2014-2019 junta, were involved in his appointment.

Helping with Srettha’s case?

Wissanu revealed last Thursday (May 30) that PM Srettha had called him during the PM’s mid-May trip to Europe to talk about a job. He said Srettha then visited him at his Bangkok home on May 25 to offer him a post, but he declined due to health issues and business commitments.

“I don’t know if he [Srettha] was advised by anyone,” he commented.

Wissanu told reporters that he finally agreed to become the prime minister’s legal advisor in the Cabinet Secretariat in order to keep his promise not to take another ministerial post.

He also denied widespread speculation that he was returning to politics to defend Srettha in his ongoing Constitutional Court case. Wissanu said the prime minister already had several legal advisors, though would likely also seek his advice regarding the case.

“I understand that the prime minister wants me to look into the case,” he said.

A group of 40 senators has asked the court to rule on whether Srettha violated the Constitution by appointing Pichit Chuenban as Prime Minister’s Office minister despite his prison record. A guilty verdict could see Srettha ousted as prime minister, a post he has held since last August.

The group of senators cited the constitutional clause requiring that ministerial appointees show “evident integrity” and high political ethical standards. In 2008,

Pichit was jailed for six months on contempt of court charges for attempting to bribe Supreme Court officials overseeing a case against his client, ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra.

Pichit’s recent resignation as minister was not enough to stop the Constitutional Court from accepting the case for trial.

Hoping for ‘legal miracle’?

In seeking Wissanu’s help, Srettha may be hoping the law guru can pull off another “legal miracle” like those he achieved for his previous bosses.

Wissanu’s legal expertise was credited with helping coup-maker Prayut survive all five Constitutional Court cases filed against him while in power.

Critics have nicknamed Wissanu “neti borikorn”, a derogatory term meaning “legal servant”, or a legal expert willing to serve whoever happens to be in power.

Born on September 15, 1951, in the southern province of Songkhla, Wissanu received a bachelor’s degree in law from Thammasat University and was licensed by the Thai Bar Association.

He later obtained a master’s in law and then a doctorate in juridical science from the University of California at Berkeley in the US.

He lectured law at Chulalongkorn University, where he became a professor, and at Thammasat and Ramkhamhaeng universities.

Serving under multiple PMs

Wissanu shifted to the Prime Minister’s Office in 1991, serving as deputy Cabinet secretary-general under the elected government of Chatichai Choonhavan, before it was ousted in a military coup later that year.

He remained in a bureaucratic post under the successive post-coup administrations of Anand Panyarachun and General Suchinda Kraprayoon.

In 1993, Wissanu was promoted to Cabinet secretary-general – the top civil servant advising the government on legal affairs – under Chuan Leekpai’s elected government.

Wissanu served in the post for nine years between October 1993 and September 2002, under the four successive administrations of Chuan, Banharn Silpa-archa, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, and Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party has been succeeded by Pheu Thai, which returned as the ruling party last August.

It was Thaksin who appointed Wissanu as his deputy prime minister in charge of legal affairs. Wissanu served in the post from October 2002 until June 2006 – before Thaksin was ousted in a military coup in September of that year.

Wissanu returned to the same job in August 2014 after General Prayut took power following a coup he led as Army chief three months earlier.

This time, Wissanu served for nine years until September 2023, after Srettha was appointed prime minister.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk