11 July 2024

Defying his advanced years, exile and legal status, 87-year-old fugitive former deputy interior minister Vatana Asavahame is still playing an influential role in Thai politics.

“The Asavahame family is still a political clan in Thailand,” Vatana declared earlier this month, as the charismatic patriarch urged former deputy agriculture and cooperatives minister Sunthorn Pansaengthong to run for the post of Samut Prakan Provincial Administrative Organization (PAO) chief.

The Asavahame family has held power in the province adjoining Bangkok for decades.

That power extends to the current PAO chief, Nantida Kaewbuasai, who was once married to Vatana’s late son, Chonsawat Asavahame. Although the couple had reportedly separated, they had one daughter together and remained on good terms. Nantida’s tenure expires in December.

After Chonsawat died suddenly last year, Vatana apparently hatched the idea that instead of allowing Nantida to run for another term, the post should go to one of his long-time aides.

“Sunthorn has had my support since 1975,” said Vatana. “And he embodies the ideology of my political clan.”

Godfather of Pak Nam

Vatana was born in Samut Prakan’s Pak Nam on September 30, 1936. He studied law at Ramkhamhaeng University and business administration at the UK-based Southeastern University (London Campus).

He embarked on a career in business at around the age of 20, quickly enjoying success.

After switching to politics, Vatana was elected as Samut Prakan MP for the first time in 1975, amassing strong local support that saw him re-elected in his hometown seat another nine times over the next 21 years. Dubbed the “Godfather of Pak Nam”, he was wooed by several political parties who knew he could boost their electoral and parliamentary fortunes with the Samut Prakan constituencies he controlled.

Vatana served in several Cabinets during his time as MP. He was appointed as deputy industry minister in 1976, deputy interior minister in 1988, 1990, and 1997, and PM’s Office minister in 1992.

As Pak Nam’s political “godfather”, he also paved the path to power for two of his sons. Poonphol Asavahame, now deceased, was a former Samut Prakan MP. Chonsawat, meanwhile, was mayor and chief executive of the Samut Prakan PAO.

Klong Dan scandal and downfall

From the heights of political kingmaker, Vatana suffered a spectacular downfall when he was implicated in the Klong Dan Wastewater Treatment Project scandal. The biggest corruption case of its time reportedly cost Thai taxpayers around 23 billion baht. The Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders in 2008 sentenced Vatana to 10 years in prison for abusing his power as deputy interior minister. 

Vatana fled the country before an arrest could be issued. The 15-year statute of limitations on the case has since expired.

In 2018, he was found guilty of aiding a scam to buy up land cheap for the Klong Dan project before selling it at inflated prices to the government. This time he was sentenced to three years in jail.

Veteran politician

Even while in exile, Vatana has evidently found it difficult to give up politics. The octogenarian apparently continues to lead and offer guidance to local politicians in Samut Prakan.

A Samut Prakan provincial councillor recently posted a video clip in which Vatana is being feted at a party. Vatana is also shown voicing support for Sunthorn’s bid to become the next Samut Prakan PAO chief.

The party guest list reportedly included numerous elected politicians and the chiefs of various Thai organizations.

“Dear all, please support Sunthorn,” Vatana declared to the VIP crowd.

The clip sparked widespread rumours that Vatana had returned to Thailand from self-exile. However, several sources confirmed that he had hosted the party at his residence across the border in Cambodia.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk