An interview with former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, Dr. Wissanu Krea-ngam

Dr. Wissanu Krea-ngam/Courtesy

“Actually, I wasn’t interested in politics much. I began my career as a law professor,” Dr. Wissanu Krea-ngam, UC Berkeley alumnus and a former Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand, said. Dr. Wissanu has since returned to teaching law, leaving politics three months before the September 2006 ousting of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Politically active during the unrest and instability that culminated in the overthrow of Mr. Thaksin’s government, Dr. Wissanu served seven different prime ministers and worked with ten different administrations throughout the course of his political career. However Dr. Wissanu’s entrance to the political arena, and even to the field of law, was inadvertent.

“When I was a little boy,” Dr. Wissanu said, “I dreamed to be a teacher.” Taking the entrance exam at Thammasat University, one of the most prestigious universities in Thailand, Dr. Wissanu chose to study in the Faculty of Liberal Arts, hoping to pursue a career in education.

Indeed, it was due to happenstance that Dr. Wissanu ended up studying law at all. Several of his friends were law students and, having gotten “used” to their company, he “just followed them to law school.” After one year of liberal arts courses, Dr. Wissanu transferred disciplines and quickly found that law was his “dream.”

“The subject, classes and courses about logic, reasoning and legal thinking… I did not know about this before in my life.”

Dr. Wissanu earned a Bachelor of Laws from Thammasat University, graduating with first class honors in 1972. Soon after, he received a scholarship from the government that allowed him to study abroad in the U.S. on one condition: however long Dr. Wissanu spent abroad studying, he would have to teach for twice that amount of time upon his return to Thailand. Dr. Wissanu attended UC Berkeley, earning both a master’s degree and a doctorate in juridical science from the institution. However, the terms of his scholarship undercut his overseas studies. While he “enjoyed going to school” in Berkeley, he said he studied “very hard” in order to expedite his return to Thailand.

In accordance with his scholarship, Dr. Wissanu’s graduation from law school was soon followed by a teaching career at Chulalongkorn University, another top university in Thailand. Dr. Wissanu’s early expression of his love for teaching turned out to be prescient: after completing the terms of service stipulated in his scholarship, he continued to teach for “ten more years, happily.”

Much like his incidental introduction to law, Dr. Wissanu’s ascension through the political ranks was also not premeditated. “One day, I was invited by the Secretary General of the Cabinet to be his Deputy Secretary General,” Dr. Wissanu said. He transferred from his job at Chulalongkorn University to be the Vice Secretary General of the Cabinet. About two years later, he was promoted to be Secretary General of the Cabinet, a post he held for roughly a decade.

Then Mr. Thaksin came knocking.

“One day, Prime Minister Thaksin asked me to be his minister, just ‘minister,’ that’s what he mentioned,” Dr. Wissanu said. Dr. Wissanu initially rejected Mr. Thaksin’s offer, not wanting to abandon his career. But Mr. Thaksin, who served as Thailand’s prime minister from 2001 to 2006, could be persuasive.

“He said, ‘Two or three years and then you can come back. But if you reject, I will not let you be here as Secretary General anyway,’” Dr. Wissanu said.

Dr. Wissanu served as a Deputy Prime Minister to Mr. Thaksin for four years, advising him in legal affairs and representing the government before the parliament.

“Of course, he did some things out of the system underground, and I never gave him advice about that and he never asked,” Dr. Wissanu said. “He had his own legal advisor in that affair.”

To give an example of Mr. Thaksin’s private dealings, Dr. Wissanu referenced the 2006 deal in which the former prime minister and his family sold its stake in Shin Corp. to a Singaporean holding company in a tax-free transaction worth $1.9 billion.

A controversial figure, Mr. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup and went into a self-imposed exile to avoid corruption charges. Some say that questions regarding the role of the constitution, corruption and the disparity between urban and rural dwellers underlay much of the 2005 and 2006 events that led to Mr. Thaksin’s ousting. And it was in that environment of political instability that Dr. Wissanu resigned, leaving his post in June of 2006.

“I resigned because, at the time, politics was very confusing,” he said.

He cited the “dissolution of Parliament” as hindering the government’s ability to “work, or start anything new.”

“I was unable to argue with anybody or to fight,” Dr. Wissanu said. “So I resigned and never returned.”

Speaking on the political future of Thailand, Dr. Wissanu said “the situation at this time is very bad” and “has never happened before.”

“People don’t trust each other,” Dr. Wissanu said. “Even the teachers now, they never know what their students are affiliated with.”

The social and political unrest that led to the overthrow of Mr. Thaksin and his political party in 2006 is still present, with a notable flare in instability occurring between 2008 and 2010. And, though Mr. Thaksin remains in his self-imposed exile, his political influence remains palpable – his sister Yingluck Shinawatra is currently serving as prime minister. Despite being the first female to hold the position in Thailand, some see her as no more than a pawn for her brother’s political intentions.

While “many put the blame on Prime Minister Thaksin” for the political turmoil, Dr. Wissanu said that if he could speak to Mr. Thaksin, he would urge him to return to Thailand, “accept some liability” and “seek amnesty from His Majesty the King.”

“I believe that the process tends to be very smooth if he comes back,” Dr. Wissanu said. “But he must come through the legal process. Some people try to negotiate for him and assure him he’ll just be in custody for one week instead of two years…Or even one day. So what? He says no.”

In regards to the future of Thai politics, Dr. Wissanu simply said, “it’s up to time.”

“Maybe some day in the future people will get tired of arguing or fighting and just stop everything.”

Currently, Dr. Wissanu is a part of the Juridical Council — a council that acts as a legal advisor to the government and is involved in drafting bills and interpreting laws. The Council is divided into 12 groups; Dr. Wissanu acts as chairman to the sector concerned with constitutional and public law. Additionally, Dr. Wissanu hosts a short television program and authors about five columns a week, with topics ranging from politics to gastronomy. He also holds many corporate directorships and chairman positions for companies including Loxley Public Company Limited and Post Publishing Company Limited. (According to Dr. Wissanu, “those companies belong to my friends.”)

And in fulfillment of his youthful dream of becoming a teacher, Dr. Wissanu is still teaching. He is a law professor at both Chulalongkorn and Thammasat Universities.

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