Pheu Thai tightens ship in cabinet reshuffle for economic drive and digital wallet scheme. Top changes include a new Finance Minister and shift in key roles. Challenges ahead as the coalition tackles thorny issues such as cannabis and a need for stronger GDP growth.

Thailand woke up on Sunday to a reshuffled cabinet. In effect, the reshuffle addressed points of tension and concern in the government since September 2023. Firstly, the faltering economy has seen a new Minister of Finance appointed. The role had been undertaken by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin. However, it is now thought that the economy will be driven by a team at the Ministry of Finance with close ties to ex-Premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Similarly, Dr Cholnan Srikaew was removed as Minister of Public Health. Here, the thinking is it may have something to do with the upcoming cannabis legislation due shortly before the cabinet. However, it was not all plain sailing for the PM on Sunday as the Minister of Foreign Affairs Parnpree Bahiddha-Nu-Kara tendered his resignation after losing his role as deputy prime minister.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin pictured on Saturday as he headed to Rayong province. (Top left inset) The new Minister of Finance, Pichai Chunhavajira. (Inset top right) New Deputy Minister of Finance, Mr Paophum Rojanasakul. (Right bottom inset) Minister of Foreign Affairs Parnpree Bahiddha-Nu-Kara resigned on Sunday in a surprise move.

After weeks of speculation, rumours, and counter-rumours, the new cabinet lineup emerged on Sunday. It came in the Royal Gazette.

Certainly, one reason Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin remained tight-lipped to the end was the need to have the final list approved by the King. 

However, it was clear last week that a new cabinet was being finalised as officials vetted all the included ministers.

Decision to retain Defence Minister Sutin Klangsaeng will be warmly welcomed within Pheu Thai and sends the right signal about civilian control of defence

There were some last-minute changes in the final outcome. Significantly, Mr Sutin Klangsaeng, Defence Minister, retained his portfolio. Many seasoned observers will support the Prime Minister’s final decision on the matter.

Mr Sutin is regarded as a sincere politician, a man of principle and integrity.

The MP from Maha Sarakham in northeastern Thailand is a consistent top performer for the Pheu Thai Party in the polls.

Indeed, he was the only Pheu Thai politician to defeat the surging Move Forward Party in the 2023 General Election.

A star performer while in opposition, Mr Sutin also became the first civilian Minister of Defence without being Prime Minister in September last year.

Thaksin’s real influence hinted at with a lunchtime meeting at his daughter’s central Bangkok hotel in Ploenchit
Big cabinet reshuffle talks confirmed by the PM after Songkran visit to Thonburi to meet Thaksin at home

Afterwards, he was faced with resolving the controversy over the stalled Chinese submarine purchase. The Defence Minister led a move to cancel the procurement project.

In turn, Thailand would order a frigate or advanced patrol boat.

This matter is still pending finalisation, but Mr Sutin has deftly handled the issue.

No such reprieve for Dr Cholnan Srikaew as Minister of Public Health. Unclear what the reason was but it could be linked to the thorny issue of cannabis

Previously, it was thought that Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin would take up the role of Minister of Defence like previous government leaders before him.

However, the decision to leave the role in the hands of respected civilian politicians sends a far stronger signal.

Nonetheless, on Sunday, there was no such reprieve for Dr Cholnan Srikaew, the former Pheu Thai Party leader. It is not clear why he was removed from the cabinet. Certainly, it was expected given the recent reshuffle speculation.

Dr Cholnan, significantly, appeared to reproach the Prime Minister recently when Mr Srettha outlined his opposition to cannabis and suggested it should be criminalised again. 

The former public health minister appears to have been conflicted on how to resolve the marijuana issue.

This came after a strident interview given by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin on France 24 TV. This is a potential fault line in the government between the Pheu Thai and Bhumjaithai Parties.

Cannabis law emerges as a big political threat to the coalition judging by what happened in 2022 revolt 
Jail time to return for Cannabis players as Srettha describes the trade as a threat to the country and economic negative

The decision to introduce veteran Pheu Thai minister Somsak Thepsutin into the role is a clever one. 

Mr Somsak, formerly a reformist Justice Minister under the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, is also a skilful political performer.

Resignation of Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nu-Kara certainly marred the Prime Minister’s reshuffle announcement. This key role must now be filled

On Sunday, there was a hiccup in the Prime Minister’s plans.

This came when former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Parnpree Bahiddha-Nu-Kara submitted his resignation.

It is not clear why the Foreign Minister resigned. Certainly, he had been considered a strong performer in the government since last year.

In addition to the visa-free joint pact with China, similar negotiations were pending with the United Kingdom and Europe. Moreover, he successfully oversaw the return of 23 captured Thai hostages.

On Sunday, it was suggested that the removal of the deputy premiership was the issue at stake.

The resignation leaves a plum role now to be filled by the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, it is still a challenging one.

With rising geopolitical tensions, the need for foreign investment and hostages still being held by terror group Hamas, it will require experienced hands.

New leadership at the Ministry of Finance is tasked with pushing economic growth. This is a political imperative for the Pheu Thai Party. It will fight hard

The most significant change in the new cabinet is the appointment of 73-year-old Mr Pichai Chunhavajira as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance.

The move must also be viewed with the appointment of Mr Paophum Rojanasakul as Deputy Minister of Finance.

Previously, Mr Paophum was seen as a highly capable senior Pheu Thai Party official.

In turn, this now means that the Ministry of Finance is being run by Pheu Thai. Undoubtedly, some would also argue that it brings the economic management of the kingdom under Mr Pichai. At the same time, Mr Srettha has been removed from his previous role.

Mr Pichai is a close confidant and advisor to the Shinawatra family.

The grapevine suggests that the plan is to push the Digital Wallet project irrespective of opposition to it. This dogged determination bears the hallmark of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The word is that worries and fears expressed by the Bank of Thailand will be disregarded.

The plan aims to kickstart Thailand’s economy.

Everyone agrees that the government’s economic performance has been particularly lacklustre.

In short, it is why voters have chosen Pheu Thai in the past. With the party’s popularity declining, this is the only way forward for it.

In the meantime, the real Move Forward Party faces being disbanded by the Constitutional Court.

Thamanat Prompow now controls the Agriculture Ministry

In turn, the price paid for these arrangements was the removal of Pheu Thai deputy minister Chaiya Promma from the Ministry of Agriculture.

That ministry is now controlled by Thamanat Prompow, the Secretary-general of the Palang Pracharat Party.

At one point, the controversial agriculture minister was rumoured as likely to be removed. Nevertheless, as talks of a reshuffle advanced, his position emerged even stronger.

In all, the reshuffled cabinet saw six new faces in the line-up, while four have been removed. Notably, the Bhumjaithai Party has retained its eight ministers in their previous posts.

Similarly, with most other seats divided up between the Palang Pracharat Party and the United Thai Nation (Ruam Thai Sang Chart) Party, the cabinet reshuffle saw little change among ministers from other parties in the coalition.

Return of former Minister of Labour as Deputy Minister of Commerce as many cabinet seats held by coalition parties have not changed in this reshuffle

However, Mr Suchart Chomklin, formerly Minister of Labour in the government of General Prayut Chan-o-cha, has returned.

The United Thai Nation (Ruam Thai Sang Chart) Party list MP, has been appointed Deputy Minister of Commerce. The Chonburi politician was considered an able senior minister in the last government.

Unquestionably, this was essentially a Pheu Thai reorganisation within the government while dealing with other loose ends. For example, the resignation of ministers from other parties and the need to fill vacant seats.

Tourist insurance plan for all visitors agreed by cabinet scotched again by top ministry officials for stop-gap measure

Another key change seen on Sunday was the removal of Tourism Minister Sudawan Wang-Suphakitkosol who swapped roles with Culture Minister Sermsak Pongpanich.

In short, the grapevine suggested unease at Ms Sudawan’s inability to control senior officials at her ministry.

In particular, the decision to shelve the foreign tourism levy, which was to have been linked with insurance cover for all foreign tourists.

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Further reading:

Thaksin’s real influence hinted at with a lunchtime meeting at his daughter’s central Bangkok hotel in Ploenchit

Big cabinet reshuffle talks confirmed by the PM after Songkran visit to Thonburi to meet Thaksin at home

Jail time to return for Cannabis players as Srettha describes the trade as a threat to the country and economic negative

Bank of Thailand holding strong against a strident push by the PM for more populist economics as debt levels rise

Property market glut sees minister’s call for supports in the face of the central bank’s ongoing credit crunch

Prime Minister Srettha still doggedly pushing his less than popular and legally perilous Digital Wallet plan

Digital Wallet plan blown out of the water by corruption body on Tuesday warning of illegality

Srettha outlines Digital Wallet as his government begins to flounder with a faltering economy and confusion

Economy is in troubled waters with fears for both exports and foreign tourism as 2023 winds down

Thailand faces an economic future of low growth despite Srettha’s plans because of a darker world

Another dip for the baht or are economic danger signals flashing for both Thailand and the world?

Bank of Thailand boss appears critical of the new government’s policy initiatives on the economy

Economy tanks as demand for loans surges with an acute credit crisis and falling export output reducing growth