11 July 2024

Sudawan Wangsuphakijkosol, a first-time MP, has surprised observers by winning a post in Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s new Cabinet. The 41-year-old was catapulted to the top of Thailand’s political tree as the scion of one of the country’s most influential political clans. 

Sudawan was handed the sought-after post of tourism and sports minister on September 2, becoming the youngest member of the Cabinet.

Family matters

Born in 1982, Sudawan is the eldest daughter of Weerasak Wangsuphakijkosol, a former deputy commerce minister, and his wife Yolada, who is chief executive of Nakhon Ratchasima Provincial Administrative Organization.

Weerasak, widely known as Kamnan Por, earned his nickname after spending decades as a kamnan or subdistrict chief in Nakhon Ratchasima. After twice being named as an outstanding kamnan, he entered national politics in 2019 and was elected as a party-list MP under the Bhumjaithai banner.

Foreshadowing his daughter’s success as a first-time MP, Weerasak was handed a Cabinet role thanks to his status as the head of a faction of local MPs.

Earlier this year, he decided to quit Bhumjaithai and join Pheu Thai over a reported conflict with Bhumjaithai patriarch Newin Chidchob.

Weerasak’s support contributed significantly to Pheu Thai’s success at the last general election, adding 14 seats including two party-list MPs to its final tally.

Along with its vote-winning appeal in Nakhon Ratchasima, the Wangsuphakijkosol family enjoys considerable wealth. Weerasak has assets totaling about 247 million baht, while his wife is worth over 200 million baht.

However, the May 14 election saw Sudawan run as a Pheu Thai party-list candidate on behalf of her father, who cited health problems as his reason for withdrawing from national politics. Pheu Thai placed her at No 21 on its list – an even higher ranking than a strong candidate for government spokesman post, Danuporn Punnakan, who has been with the party since the early 2000s when it was known as Thai Rak Thai.

Standing firmly alongside Sudawan in the clan’s faction of MPs are her partner, Nikorn Soemklang; her brother, Arthit Wangsuphakijkosol; her cousins, Noraset and Pornthep Sirirotanakul; and Noraset’s wife Piyanuch Yindeesuk.

From tapioca to tourism minister

Sudawan graduated with a bachelor’s in engineering from Suranaree University of Technology and took over her family’s tapioca business – Eiamheng Tapioca Starch Industry Company.

Last year, the company earned more than 6.25 billion baht in revenue with a profit of 67.78 million baht. After three decades in business, the company’s assets now stand at 4.04 billion baht.

Following in the footsteps of her father, Sudawan decided to leave the business to other family members and focus on politics instead.

Challenging mission ahead

Though Sudawan has no experience in the tourism industry, pundits began predicting she would helm the Tourism and Sports Ministry after she accompanied PM Srettha to Phuket on a fact-finding mission late last month. Phuket is Thailand’s No 1 tourism destination after Bangkok, drawing millions of international visitors each year.

Sudawan may have earned her new post thanks to family connections, but she will still need to prove herself in a challenging mission.

New PM Srettha has entrusted her with an important role, given that tourism remains Thailand’s key economic driver. Before COVID-19, tourism revenue was estimated at nearly 16% of the country’s gross domestic product.

An overhaul of the tourist visa system was one of new PM Srettha’s first actions after taking office. From October, visitors from China will be able to enter Thailand visa-free. Srettha has also vowed to woo investors for new plans to promote Thai tourism.

As the new tourism-boosting measures materialize, Sudawan’s job will be to steer and supervise their implementation for concrete results. Her performance as tourism and sports minister will determine how far she can go in her political career.

By Thai PBS World’s Business Desk