Likely New Thai Foreign Minister Tipped

Kittirat Na Ranong, a former businessman, seems set to become Thailand’s foreign minister in the new Yingluck Shinawatra administration, after being handpicked by her older brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, according to a source inside the Thai Foreign Ministry.

Kittirat is already forming a new team of diplomats to replace the one led by departing Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, the source said.

Kittirat’s previous position as the youngest-ever president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) could signify a possible return to the commerce-driven diplomacy that was a Thaksin foreign policy trademark when he was prime minister from 2001-2006. It also seems to indicate, in case anybody doubted it, the extent to which Thaksin, and not his sister, will be driving the new government.

In the next week, Yingluck is expected to be endorsed by parliamentarians as the country’s first female prime minister. A cabinet list will be revealed simultaneously. Already, rumors are swirling about apparent infighting over cabinet seats among different factions within Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party.

The race for foreign minister is said to be particularly fierce because it is perceived as an aristocratic bastion whose high-level diplomats have intimate connections with the royal palace.

Joining the race are old hands at politics including Mingkwan Saengsuwan, Pranpree Bahiddha-Nukara and Plodprasop Suraswadi. There are also former diplomats who are capable of becoming foreign minister, such as Saroj Chavanaviraj, who was foreign minister for three days during the Samak Sundaravej in 2008; Vikrom Koompirochana, former ambassador to Great Britain and Pithaya Pookaman , a former ambassador to Bangladesh.

A Foreign Ministry source told Asia Sentinel that Thaksin handpicked Kittirat. The two men have known each other for quite some and Kittirat is currently president of a university founded by Thaksin. Kittirat is reported to have forged a close alliance with a group led by Sudarat Kaeyurapan within the Pheu Thai Party.

Given Kittirat’s strong professional credentials, the choice could also signal that Thaksin, learning from his own mistakes, may want to reconstruct Thai diplomacy to be somewhat cleaner and more acceptable to Thailand’s counterparts.

Prior to joining the SET, Kittirat was chief investment officer of Univentures PLC and chairman of Cathay Asset Management. He gained most of his experience with securities in the trading, research and asset management arms of Securities One in Bangkok, which he joined in 1987 after a spell in corporate lending with the Thai Farmers Bank.

An economics graduate of elite Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, he earned his MBA from the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration. Kittirat was an adviser to the Thai parliament on economic affairs and a director of the State Enterprises Capital Policy Committee.

He became president of the SET in 2001, just two days before the 9/11 attacks hammered stock markets worldwide. Two years later, Kittirat had turned things around. The combined profits of companies listed in the SET under his leadership, stood at Bt76 billion (US$2.5 billion), a 50 percent increase in two years. Kittirat was credited the successful development of the bond market.

He resigned from the SET in 2006 and moved to academia. He was deputy director of academic affairs at Sasin, and is now president of Shinawatra International University, which was founded by Thaksin in 1996.

With strong regional business connections, Kittirat would seem well placed for the new post and could perhaps help undo some of the damage done by the Abhisit government in particular the outgoing Kasit. If Yingluck is serious about resolving the Preah Vihear temple issue with Cambodia, Kittirat might be a wise choice. Unlike Kasit, he has no political baggage and has never insulted Thailand’s neighbors. And also unlike Kasit, Kittirat is a man with a clear vision, demonstrated during his years at the SET, and a stated commitment to meritocracy instead of patronage as a political ideal.

Interestingly, however, Kittirat’s brother, Kittipong Na Ranong, is currently Thai ambassador to Washington and a close ally of Kasit. Kittipong is also an anti-Thaksin figure.

If, as some suspect, Thaksin will want to penalize those ambassadors who aided Kasit’s attempts to hunt him down during his past 30 months in exile, Kittirat’s family ties could put him at odds with his patron.

(Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former diplomat, is a fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.)