11 July 2024

Despite only entering politics last year, Chai Wacharonke has surprisingly beaten a handful of rival candidates to the post of government spokesman. We can expect to hear plenty more from this political newcomer, who has been handed the crucial role of relaying the Pheu Thai-led administration’s policies to the public.

Sources say Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, also a political newbie, decided to entrust Chai with this important post because he has built a good reputation, amassed solid knowledge of economics, and demonstrated communication skills that are not overtly political.

Veterinary background

Chai, 64, is widely dubbed “Mor Chai”, or “Doctor Chai”. However, he has never been a physician. Instead, his educational and professional background is rooted in veterinary science.

Chai studied at the prestigious Triam Udom Suksa School before furthering his education at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Veterinary Science. After graduating, he served in various jobs at several companies – selling animal feed, animal vaccines, and farming equipment.

Chai eventually started his own business, co-founding Knack Kohlan in 2002.

The company’s assets now total 196.66 million baht, but co-founder Chai reportedly decided to transfer all his shares in the company to his relative, Chansak Wacharonke, in March 2022, just before entering politics. Knack Kohlan sells pets and related products, including pet food.

In 2015, Chai also co-founded Knack Nature and remained its major shareholder until March last year, when he transferred his shares in the “herbapeutic” toothpaste business to Chansak.

Chai first entered the public spotlight as the presenter of a TV program on channel TNN24 that he hosted for five years. Because the program featured academic content on farming, the Pheu Thai Party describes him as an expert on new agriculture.

Cockfighting connections

Although Chai has built a successful business career, many of his connections with top figures in the business and academic sectors come from his passion for cockfighting. He started raising fighting cocks as a hobby before farming the fowls to earn supplementary income.

Cockfighting offered Chai the chance to meet and befriend powerful figures such as Dhanin Chearavanont, the billionaire senior chairman of Charoen Pokphand Group, and Somsak Thepsutin, now a deputy prime minister.

“Because we shared this hobby, we used to meet often over 20 years ago,” Chai said of Dhanin in a recent interview with BBC Thai.

The Chearavanonts are Thailand’s richest family, while Forbes ranks Dhanin as the 116th wealthiest person in the world with a net worth of US$14.9 billion.

When bird flu threatened Thailand in 2004, Chai used his position as vice president of the Association of Thai Fighting Cocks Career Promotion to push for vaccination rather than the culling of fowls. He was backed by the association’s celebrity president, the singer-songwriter Yuenyong Opakul or “Aed Carabao”. The idea, which was unconventional at the time, caught the attention of Somsak who was serving as deputy minister of agriculture and cooperatives.

Aligning with Pheu Thai

Chai said he joined Pheu Thai Party because its DNA aligned with his interests. In his view, Pheu Thai has done more for farmers and agricultural development than any other party ever since its days as the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party.

“TRT caught my eye in 1997. It was progressive, tech-savvy, and practical,” he commented during his unveiling as a Pheu Thai member.

The coalition leader lists Chai as a key figure in its plans to upgrade Thailand’s agricultural sector.

Even before making his political debut, Chai spoke up publicly in support of Pheu Thai on many occasions. When the Yingluck Shinawatra-led government came under severe pressure over its rice-pledging scheme, Chai explained to viewers of his TV program that the scheme offered huge benefits to farmers.

He was also among the witnesses produced to defend Yingluck during hearings conducted by the National Anti-Corruption Commission and then by the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Persons Holding Political Positions.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk