6 June 2024

In power for less than two months, the government of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has already run into legal issues that could potentially land the PM and his Cabinet members in jail.

Petitioners recently filed complaints against Srettha over last month’s appointment of a new national police chief. Srettha nominated Pol General Torsak Sukvimol for the job despite him being the least senior among the four candidates – a move which critics claimed violated the law, regulations, and ethical standards.

The legal trouble has placed another man in the public spotlight.

Pichit Chuenban appears to have been chosen as Srettha’s adviser in government legal affairs, charged with steering the PM safely through legal pitfalls when implementing policy or making decisions.

Pichit, one among many legal experts in the ruling Pheu Thai Party, was recently appointed as one of the prime minister’s official advisers. He had originally been tipped to become a Prime Minister’s Office minister in charge of government legal affairs. But a bribery allegation against him in 2008 came back to haunt Pichit, forcing him to relinquish any hope of taking the post.

In need of legal advice

Pichit has many years of legal experience behind him, having acted as lawyer for former prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra in cases stemming from their tenures. However, some observers compare Pichit unfavorably to past “legal czars” like former deputy prime minister Wissanu Krea-ngam and say PM Srettha and his Cabinet may have cause to worry. Wissanu said in late August that he would wash his hands of politics.

Despite his many successes as a lawyer, Pichit was unable to get Thaksin and Yingluck off the hook; both were ruled guilty in court. Meanwhile, Wissanu helped Srettha’s immediate predecessor, former prime minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, survive several legal cases during his nine years in power.

Pichit has reportedly already begun advising PM Srettha, including on the recent appointment of the national police chief. He has also been spotted at the prime minister’s side on numerous occasions recently.

It remains unclear if the prime minister has sought advice from other legal experts in the ruling party – including Assoc Prof Choosak Sirinin, a Pheu Thai deputy leader who was earlier tipped to become Srettha’s deputy prime minister for legal affairs – or even officials in the Council of State, the government’s legal advisory agency.

Long years in service

Wissanu, 72, has made a name for himself as chief legal advisor to a string of governments since the 1990s, both elected and coup-born administrations.

He served as Cabinet secretary-general – the highest-ranking civil servant advising the government on legal affairs – between October 1996 and September 2002, under the four successive administrations of Banharn Silpa-archa, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Chuan Leekpai, and Thaksin Shinawatra. He also served as deputy prime minister in charge of legal affairs under Thaksin for almost four years (October 2002 to June 2006) and under Prayut for nine years (August 2014 to September 2023).

Critics call Wissanu “neti borikorn”, a derogatory term that translates as “server of legal services”, or a legal expert willing to serve whoever happens to be in power.

In early September during the final days of Prayut’s Cabinet, Wissanu happily admitted he was a “neti borikorn” for governments. “But I provide less service to Cabinet members and the prime minister than I do to ministries and departments,” he said.

He explained that he took the role of deputy PM overseeing government legal affairs because state agencies sometimes get into conflict with each other through lack of communication.

Marred by health issues

Wissanu, who disclosed recently that he needs regular kidney dialysis, told reporters that after leaving government, he planned to continue working at the Council of State and Royal Society of Thailand. He also mentioned writing books, guest-lecturing, and spending time with his grandchildren at home.

Wissanu said he first thought of quitting politics in 2006 after helping draft the post-coup interim constitution and serving in the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly. He was appointed by the junta following the September 2006 coup that overthrew the government led by his former boss Thaksin.

“But eight years later, I had to get involved in politics again,” he said, referring to the aftermath of the May 2014 coup led by then-Army chief Prayut.

Wissanu was born on September 15, 1951, in the southern province of Songkhla. He 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, Berkeley, in the US.

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

In 1991, Wissanu shifted to the Prime Minister’s Office, working as deputy secretary-general of the Cabinet. Two years later, he was promoted to secretary-general.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk