Quietly, the khunying remains in charge

potjaman

What has been hidden somewhat from the public glare, however, is the role of Thaksin’s former wife, Khunying Potjaman Damapong, in the latest Puea Thai reshuffle.

The ongoing changes within the Puea Thai Party are not simply to prepare it for the expectedly fierce battle against the Democrats when a general election is called, a party insider told me recently. It is part of consolidating Thaksin Shinawatra’s power position, even though the former prime minister and fugitive from justice remains abroad in self-imposed exile.

The source confirmed that a number of party members will be travelling shortly to meet Thaksin and receive instructions regarding the new power arrangement.

Samak Sundaravej

Samak Sundaravej

Somchai Wongsawat

Somchai Wongsawat

On the surface, this development seems unexciting. Thaksin has overtly manipulated Thai politics since he was overthrown in the 2006 coup. He endorsed two prime ministers, Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat. He also gave his blessings to the founding of the People Power Party (PPP) – a re-incarnation of his defunct Thai Rak Thai; PPP, too, has since been disbanded due to election fraud, leading to the creation of Puea Thai. Thaksin’s selection of a new Puea Thai leader is, therefore, anticipated by party members.

What has been hidden somewhat from the public glare, however, is the role of Thaksin’s former wife, Khunying Potjaman Damapong, in the latest Puea Thai reshuffle.

The party insider said she holds the key to understanding the party’s reorganisation and re-prioritisation of political strategy, and that she is likely to have dispensed advice with regard to Thaksin’s selection of his next political heir.

Ms Potjaman has been known for her enormous influence on Thaksin’s decision-making. Never forget that she is credited with being the force behind the success of TRT. Ms Potjaman even had her own office and staff at the TRT headquarters in Shinawatra Building.

Somchai Petprasert

Somchai Petprasert

The discussion on Khunying Potjaman is timely, following reports of Thaksin’s selection of Nakhon Ratchasima MP Somchai Petprasert to lead Puea Thai. Since Thaksin’s remote-control management from his overseas base is not always reliable, Ms Potjaman’s presence on the political scene is imperative and useful.

The party informant revealed that Thaksin could have asked his former wife to undertake two missions.

First, as an immediate task, Thaksin needs his former wife to supervise core members of Puea Thai to ensure that there will be no more defections. Thaksin once failed to convince Newin Chidchob not to defect from the PPP. This time, Ms Potjaman, executing a new strategy on behalf of Thaksin, has as many hurdles to overcome to make the party strong and stable until the next election.

Second, and more importantly, as the party insider stressed, Ms Potjaman’s challenging assignment is to weaken the government coalition, perhaps through buying the loyalty of some of its members to defect to Puea Thai. Since there are no permanent friends or foes in Thai politics, switching alliances is always possible.

This revelation happens to coincide with the widespread rumour of Deputy Prime Minister Korbsak Sabhavasu’s possible defection to join Puea Thai. Mr Korbsak has so far rejected the rumour.

Ms Potjaman is famous for her persuasion and negotiation tactics. She is also good at spotting talent and recruiting them into the party. For example, Prommin Lertsuridej was recruited by her in 1993, and eventually rose to become secretary-general to Thaksin (when he was still in power) and deputy prime minister in the TRT government.

thaksin_potjaman_2

Why is Thaksin seeking assistance from his former wife?

A close analysis reveals that Ms Potjaman’s involvement in the reconfiguration of Puea Thai symbolises the party’s continued connection with the Shinawatra family, a magnet that would guarantee loyal votes from Thaksin’s North and Northeast strongholds. The priority for Ms Potjaman is to reduce faction-related problems. In short, the lady is there as a troubleshooter.

Another possible responsibility of Ms Potjaman is to maintain Shinawatra’s clannish politics. The job is to expand the network of Thaksin loyalists controlled by his family.

Yaowapa Wongsawat

Yaowapa Wongsawat

Payap Shinawatra

Payap Shinawatra

Yingluck Shinawatra

Yingluck Shinawatra

Chaisit Shinawatra

Chaisit Shinawatra

Not long ago, Thaksin assigned one of his sisters, Yaowapa, to lead the Puea Thai Party in the North; his brother, Payap, in the Northeast; and his youngest sister, Yingluck, in the Central Region and Bangkok. Ms Potjaman sits at the top of the Shinawatra clan while manipulating the political game in Thaksin’s favour

Nepotism is the Shinawatra trade mark. Thaksin once appointed his cousin, General Chaisit Shinawatra, as the army commander-in-chief, while Somchai Wongsawat, his brother-in-law and Yaowapa’s husband, was chosen as prime minister.

The preferred choice for the new Puea Thai leader is understandable. Somchai Petprasert is a police lieutenant colonel. The Shinawatra-Damapong police network explains Thaksin’s support for Mr Somchai’s emerging role in Puea Thai.

But do not expect to see Ms Potjaman at Puea Thai’s general assembly, which earlier had been scheduled for tomorrow but has now been postponed. Despite her powerful though unofficial position in the party, she works as an invisible hand.

Speculation regarding the new political strategy adopted by the Shinawatra members is intense, especially among the ruling party members. Accordingly, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared last week that his Democrat Party would capture at least 240 House seats in the next election. He made this bold statement at a party seminar in Surat Thani one week ahead of the Puea Thai gathering.

Mr Abhisit pronounced the new political slogan, “Confidence in Thailand, Confidence in the Democrats.” Without Thaksin, the one factor which could reduce Mr Abhisit’s confidence is Khunying Potjaman.

In retrospect, Ms Potjaman has always been the main pillar of the Shinawatra family.

Without any official role or title, she has indeed stood at the forefront of Thai politics. During Thaksin’s heyday, she was in charge of managing the TRT’s funding. In 2005, the party received some 129 million baht in donations, of which 85 million baht came from Ms Potjaman. Some TRT members even called her the party’s “minister of finance”.

pojamanshinawatra

Ms Potjaman also played the role of mediator between her husband and the old Establishment. She requested a meeting with Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, president of the Privy Council, in the aftermath of the Sept 19, 2006 coup, apparently to bridge a misunderstanding between the two men. She was once the front-runner to lead a new party back in 2007 when fears of TRT being dissolved grew. And later, while the PPP was in its infancy, she returned home several times, reportedly to screen potential cabinet members.

To enable Thaksin’s political comeback, Ms Potjaman is willing to gamble on what the Shinawatra-Damapong clan built up during previous decades. Now in exile, Thaksin needs Ms Potjaman’s assistance to manoeuvre politics on his behalf. The stakes are high. Puea Thai’s success in the next election could bring her former husband home, safe and sound.

By: Dr Pavin Chachavalpongpun

Bangkok Post/ Opinion

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