6 June 2024

Srettha Thavisin has become Thailand’s 30th prime minister after being endorsed by royal command.

The property tycoon turned politician – one of coalition leader Pheu Thai’s three prime ministerial candidates – managed to secure the required parliamentary majority on Tuesday despite being hit by a barrage of criticism. Srettha won 482 votes (of 330 MPs and 152 senators) with 165 votes against (152 MPs and 13 senators), and 81 abstentions (13 MPs and 68 senators).

Critics have questioned Srettha’s integrity and his qualifications to lead the next government. Among them is political whistleblower Chuwit Kamolvisit, who accused the incoming prime minister of facilitating tax evasion, an allegation that Srettha denied while accusing Chuwit of blackmail.

Many of the senators who voted for Srettha are close to outgoing PM Prayut Chan-o-cha – including his younger brother General Preecha Chan-o-cha and his former classmate General Chatchai Sarikulya. The two men are among the 250 senators appointed by the post-coup junta led by General Prayut.

Srettha, 61, showed little sign of emotion during Wednesday’s ceremony at Pheu Thai headquarters for his royal endorsement as PM. The solemn event was attended by other key Pheu Thai figures, including party leader Cholnan Srikaew and fellow PM candidate Paetongtarn Shinawatra, along with leaders of other coalition partners.

Behind a successful man

Standing next to Srettha during the ceremony was his wife, Dr Pakpilai, a specialist in anti-ageing medicine, exercise buff and founder of a Bangkok skincare clinic.

The couple have been married for 34 years and have three children – two sons and a daughter.

Srettha was born on February 15, 1962, as the only son of a wealthy family that is related to five major Chinese-Thai business families – Yipintsoi, Chakkapak, Jutrakul, Lamsam, and Buranasiri. His father died when he was only three years old.

He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Massachusetts and a master’s degree in business administration from Claremont Graduate School in the US.

After returning from the US in 1986, Srettha began his career as an assistant product manager at consumer goods giant P&G Thailand, before shifting to the real estate sector. In 1988, he founded the property company Sansiri, which went on to build over 400 residential projects across the country and become Thailand’s largest real estate developer.

Sansiri went public in November 1995 and was listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand in July 1996. In the first half of this year, the company made a net profit of over 3.2 billion baht, the largest among the country’s top 10 property developers.

Leaving business for politics

Srettha served as Sansiri’s president and chief executive before entering politics in March as a PM candidate of Pheu Thai. Last November, he became chief adviser to Paetongtarn in her capacity as head of the Pheu Thai Family.

Srettha’s connection with the party dates back to his time as an unofficial adviser to Yingluck Shinawatra, prime minister of the Pheu Thai-led government that was ousted by the 2014 military coup.

Srettha surprised many political observers when he admitted earlier this year that former red-shirt leader Nattawut Saikuar, who joined him at campaign rallies before the May 14 general election, is the politician that he “respects and admires the most”. He explained that Nattawut has an in-depth political understanding that inspired him to enter politics.

His supporters praise Srettha as a brilliant business leader with the courage to criticize government policies, particularly regarding social inequality. They extol him as an experienced executive with a firm grasp of Thailand’s economic situation.

Vowing to fight inequality

After being endorsed on Wednesday, Srettha promised to fight against inequality as prime minister. He has proposed that reducing inequality be a national agenda in order to narrow the social and income gaps.

“Inequality is the cause of most problems in the world. Is it so difficult to coexist equally? Equality should instead bring sustainable happiness,” he said.

He warned that if the inequality issue is ignored, finding sustainable solutions to the country’s social problems would be impossible even with a strong economy.

Srettha often uses social media to offer views on how to tackle economic, social and even political issues. By using their preferred social networking channels, he seems to be targeting young Thais with his messages and calls for change.

Over the past two years, his efforts to publicize his views have expanded beyond social media to regular appearances on panel discussions and seminars on economics and politics, as well as occasional live interviews with online media.

Some observers see parallels between Srettha’s profile and that of Pheu Thai’s patriarch Thaksin Shinawatra before his entry into politics – business leaders who dare to speak out and make quick decisions on the economy to tackle the country’s problems.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk