11 July 2024

Panthongtae Shinawatra was first thrusted into the political spotlight in early 2000s doing two things — one like any teenaged boy would do and the other like no other teenager would even dream of doing.

The former one, in 2002, had to do with a university exam incident, in which he allegedly cheated. The other one involved his father’s enormous wealth, which he inherited, on paper at least. The transfer of assets from Thaksin Shinawatra to his son Panthongtae as the former became prime minister made the young Shinawatra virtually the richest boy in Thailand.

Both incidents became national headline news. The former controversy was quietly cleared and then died down. The latter one exploded into a big political scandal when the inherited assets were sold to Singapore’s Temasek in 2006, triggering uproars and protests against “unpaid taxes”. The military drove Thaksin out of power in a coup the same year that kick-started a deep and sometimes violent political divide.

That boy has become a grown man today, and “teenaged problems” of the old days have been replaced by serious political ones. A few days ago, Panthongtae re-emerged on the front page, something he has done quite regularly lately. This time, it was announced that a decision to prosecute him with money laundering charges related to the Krisda Mahanakorn loan controversy has been deferred.

Earlier, he had been named in the loan controversy, which has landed some top bankers including Viroj Nualkair in jail. Prosecutors were initially due to make a decision on Thursday, September 6, regarding Panthongtae and two trusted aides, but the trio will apparently not learn their fates until October 10.

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) has recommended that Panthongtae be indicted in connection with the Krisda Mahanakorn loan controversy. The purported case against him involved alleged payment between loan recipients — or people associated with the Krisda Mahanakorn property developer– and the young Shinawatra after the Krungthai Bank granted them a massive loan, which was allegedly misused. The loan was approved while Thaksin was prime minister.

The DSI move against Panthongtae coincided with another of Thaksin’s outbursts overseas, in which the ousted leader labelled Thai military rulers as soldiers in female skirts. Taking away political correctness of Thaksin’s remark, it appeared that what triggered the former prime minister was the looming legal trouble of his son ahead of the next election.

Born in 1979, Panthongtae was admitted to the Thammasat University’s Faculty of Engineering in 1998. He dropped out just after a year and enrolled at the Ramkhamhaeng University in 2000. After the exam cheat controversy , he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2003.

His personal and apparently genuine business involvement came about later when he founded a production company called How Come Entertainment. Even then, charges of political nepotism plagued with the firm’s lucrative concessions.

Over the past few years, Panthongtae was politically vocal, using his Facebook account to lambast political opponents of his father and his aunt, Yingluck Shinawatra. After Yingluck was overthrown as prime minister by the military in 2014 and subsequently impeached by a military-installed legislature, Panthongtae went belligerent and posted on his Facebook what some considered a war cry.

The post, however, drew an unexpected outburst from an unlikely source. A well-known leftist activist, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, who is widely known for his anti-establishment views. Somsak, who is in self-exile in Paris, reportedly collapsed because of a stroke recently and became partially paralyzed — but not before asking Panthongtae in a Facebook post: “Where have you been since the coup? [against Yingluck].

Somsak was hitting where it hurts the most as far as the Shinawatras are concerned. The family has always been criticized for making political moves or noises only when its personal or financial interests are threatened, and for not being truly driven by any polititcal ideology.

Whether or not such criticism is true, Panthongtae seems to be a bigger political pawn nowadays, compared with the time when he was a naughty university student, caught with some notes in his pocket while sitting in an exam room.