July 15, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Thailand Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said that he sees Thaksin Shinawatra playing a role in government once he’s freed from prison — a sign of how the former premier continues to loom over the nation’s politics.

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“I believe he has value to add to the government and to the people of Thailand,” Srettha said during an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Haslinda Amin in New York on Wednesday. The new premier is seeking to revive an economy whose growth has lagged neighbors during nearly a decade of military rule.

Forced to flee in 2008 to evade graft charges, the 74-year-old Thaksin returned to Thailand last month after 15 years of self-imposed exile, arriving hours before Srettha was voted in parliament as prime minister. Srettha’s win came with the help of the Senate, in an arrangement widely seen as part of a deal between the royalist pro-military establishment and Thaksin.

Prime minister from 2001 until a coup in 2006, Thaksin still carries sway as the patriarch of a family that has dominated Thai politics for two decades despite having been found guilty, in absentia. Upon his return, he was sent to jail to serve eight years and moved shortly thereafter to a police hospital after complaining of chest pain and high blood pressure.

Within days, Thaksin petitioned King Maha Vajiralongkorn for a royal pardon and, in turn, got his sentence commuted to just one year. His family is currently looking at the possibility of securing his early release on parole.

“He was, and probably still is, the most popular prime minister in the history of Thai politics,” the Thai leader said of Thaksin who’s considered an influential figure in Srettha’s Pheu Thai party. “Obviously, that comes with good reasons and if he becomes free it would be unwise of me not to seek his opinion and other prime ministers as well,” he said.

Srettha’s attendance at the 78th session of the UN General Assembly marks his first overseas engagement since taking office earlier this month. He is Thailand’s first new leader in nearly a decade after the military establishment seized power in a 2014 coup that ousted Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister.

The new prime minister is seen as the more palatable choice for Thailand’s conservative royalist establishment after the military-appointed Senate blocked Pita Limjaroenrat’s premiership bid when his reformist party pushed to relax the country’s law that penalizes insulting the royalty.

After more than 30 years in the private sector, Srettha acknowledged his political inexperience during his Bloomberg interview as he dismissed any concerns over the durability of his ruling coalition.

“I believe it is a very, very stable government,” he said. As to what role Thaksin might play in the new government, that’s less clear. “Let’s play by ear,” Srettha said.

–With assistance from Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Karthikeyan Sundaram.

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