6 June 2024

Chonsawat Asavahame’s untimely death last Friday (March 31) is expected to hit not only his family’s political empire in Samut Prakan but also the ruling party’s chances of sweeping MP seats in the province at the May 14 general election.

Chonsawat was president of the Samut Prakan Chamber of Commerce but held no official political position. But he was de-facto leader of a local political grouping called “Progressive Samut Prakan” and was seen as the patriarch of the so-called Pak Nam faction of the ruling Palang Pracharath Party.

Although he had a history of heart disease, his death on March 31 came as a shock to many. Chonsawat lost consciousness after suffering heatstroke during race-car practice at Chang International Circuit in the northeastern province of Buriram on the afternoon of March 30. Deputy Agriculture Minister Sunthorn Pansaengthong, who is close to the Asavahame clan, said later that Chonsawat died from heart failure.

Powerful political clan

Politicians from Progressive Samut Prakan won five of the seven MP seats up for grabs in the province at the last election in March 2019. One of Palang Pracharath’s party-list MPs also comes from the group.

The Asavahame family for decades has dominated local politics in Samut Prakan, which is located just south of Bangkok. Chonsawat’s wife and former singer, Nantida Kaewbuasai, currently serves as chief executive of the Samut Prakan Provincial Administrative Organization (PAO), the first woman in the role. Prapaporn Asavahame, the widowed wife of Chonsawat’s deceased brother Poonpol, is now the Samut Prakan mayor.

Chonsawat was leading a political empire founded by his father, former deputy interior minister Vatana Asavahame, who lives in self-imposed exile overseas after fleeing a prison sentence for corruption. Two of his cousins are in the family’s political clan, but Chonsawat apparently failed to appoint his successor.

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The bereaved father

His fugitive father Vatana, who has now lost two sons during his exile, seems to be trying to reassure supporters that their clan’s Progressive Samut Prakan Team would continue its political role despite Chonsawat’s sudden death. In a recent audio clip and open letter released at Chonsawat’s funeral, the 86-year-old Vatana said: “I’m going to take better care of and work more closely with the group.”

The veteran politician left Thailand in 2008 shortly before the Criminal Court was scheduled to read its verdict in a case against him. He is reportedly living in a neighbouring country. Earlier reports said he owned a casino complex in Cambodia that was destroyed by fire in December, killing dozens.

In 2018, the Supreme Court sentenced Vatana in absentia to three years in jail for land procurement fraud in connection with the 23-billion-baht Klong Dan wastewater treatment project, one of the largest and longest-running corruption cases in Thailand’s history.

Candidates from the Asavahame clan are expected to face a tough fight in the upcoming election as they contest against their arch-rivals from the opposition Pheu Thai Party. Candidates backed by the family were defeated in the elections between 2001 and 2011 as former PM Thaksin Shinawatra expanded his political influence into Samut Prakan. Candidates linked to the red shirt movement, the ex-premier’s loyal supporters, won all general elections in the province during that decade.

Chonsawat’s Progressive Samut Prakan Team won back MP seats in the 2019 election after a decade of repeated defeats.

Early entry into politics

Chonsawat was born on November 19, 1968, as the youngest of three brothers with Pibul and Poonpol (who died in 2015). He graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Bangkok University’s Faculty of Business Management.

He entered politics in 1999 at the age of 30 after being elected mayor of Samut Prakan, thanks mainly to his father who was building a strong political empire.

In the same year, Chonsawat was accused of malfeasance in connection with electoral fraud during the election of local council members. After a court battle that continued for over a decade, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison in August 2015. He was pardoned in September of the following year.

Chonsawat managed to win the election to become the Samut Prakan PAO chief executive in May 2011. While serving in the post, he initiated many development projects including the Samut Prakan City Observatory, which has become a major landmark of the province. In the meantime, he managed to restore the strength of his political empire.

At that time, Chonsawat divorced Nantida and married actress Janie Tienphosuwan in 2013. But they parted ways a year later. He reunited with his first wife after completing his jail term.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk