• World
  • Thailand

Thailand’s New Prime Minister Is Getting Down to Business. But Can He Heal His Nation?

13 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

There is zero chance, aides insist, of accessing the second floor. The upper reaches of Bangkok’s Venetian Gothic Government House are strictly for official work. Journalists (and even respectable guests) are only permitted to loiter among the watercolors and marble ornaments that adorn the ground-floor reception rooms. Everything above the grand staircase is strictly off-limits.

It doesn’t take long for Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin to overrule this staid protocol, beckoning me up to his inner sanctum on the second floor, banishing the chastened courtiers and settling down to chat for an hour without notes.

A former property mogul who took office in September, the 62-year-old Srettha is nothing if not outgoing. He has made over 10 foreign trips to court investors including China, Japan, the U.S., and the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. The small meeting room where he sits down with TIME is ringed by whiteboards chock-full of scrawled policy objectives: digital wallets, national aviation hubs, potash mining, Tesla. His efforts are already paying dividends: foreign direct investment (FDI) in the fourth quarter of last year was double year over year. In November alone, he unveiled investments in Thailand by Amazon Web Services, Google, and Microsoft worth a combined $8.3 billion. It’s with a salesman’s avuncular charm that he says, “I want to tell the world that Thailand is open for business again.”

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin Time Magazine cover
Photograph by Cedric Arnold for TIME

It’s about time. For the past two decades, the self-styled Land of Smiles has been racked by bitter political schisms that led the Thai military to seize power in a 2014 coup and rewrite the constitution to guarantee a guiding role for the nation’s armed forces. (Srettha replaced the general who staged that putsch.) But under the following decade of fumbling quasi-military rule, Thailand’s economy—Southeast Asia’s second biggest—stagnated while inequality soared. In 2018, Thailand’s richest 1% controlled 66.9% of its wealth, according to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook. (In the U.S., it’s around 26.5%) Meanwhile, thousands of young people took to the streets over the past four years to demand the military and royal palace stop meddling in the democratic process, flashing the three-fingered Hunger Games salute as a sign of dissatisfaction with both the democratic vacuum and fiscal bungling.

Read More: Thailand’s New Prime Minister Tries Old-Fashioned Populism

Average GDP growth in Thailand—a country of 70 million—has been below 2% over the past decade, while neighbors like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam registered double to triple that rate and ate Thailand’s lunch on FDI. Compounding matters, the pandemic devastated Thailand’s vital tourism industry, with foreign arrivals still only 70% of its 2019 peak. “Thailand has been a real laggard in terms of recovery from the pandemic,” says Gareth Leather, a senior economist for Asia at Capital Economics. “It’s worse than pretty much anywhere else in Asia.”

Srettha is straightforward about the stakes. Thailand is in an “economic crisis,” he says, one that must be tackled head-on. Already, he’s slashed fuel duties, announced a three-year debt moratorium for beleaguered farmers, and plans to roll out a digital-wallet scheme that will hand 10,000 baht ($280) to every Thai adult to stimulate consumption. He’s waived visas for visitors from China and India, with plans to extend to several other countries. Aside from tourism, Srettha wants to boost Thailand’s role as a logistics, health care, and financial hub. He’s also set about raising Thailand’s profile on the world stage, hosting U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi in January for sensitive discussions between the superpower rivals. He hopes Thailand, America’s oldest ally in Asia with deep historical and cultural links to China, can serve as “a bridge” and “safe space,” he says, while enhancing its international prestige: “I want to see Thailand shine.”

Yet the path ahead remains distinctly murky. Srettha’s Pheu Thai (For Thais) party did not win May’s general election but came in second behind the anti-establishment Move Forward Party, whose radical manifesto called for bridling the nation’s generals, conglomerates, and royal palace. It was blocked from power by a military-appointed Senate despite securing a plurality of 151 out of 500 legislative seats. Pheu Thai then cobbled together a motley coalition of 10 royalist and establishment parties to secure Srettha the top job thanks to Senate backing.

Pheu Thai party candidates Srettha Thavisin, left, and Paethongtarn Shinawatra, right, at the final campaign event ahead of the upcoming general election, on May 12, 2023.
Pheu Thai party candidates Srettha, left, and Paethongtarn Shinawatra, right, at the final campaign event ahead of the upcoming general election, on May 12, 2023. Teera Noisakran—Pacific Press/Shutterstock

The paradox is that Srettha is fighting to fix Thailand’s economy by partnering with the same forces invested in thwarting major reform. And given the dire state of the Thai economy and his contentious route to power, he is under intense pressure to deliver real gains—and fast. Not that Srettha chooses to frame things in quite those terms. 

Read More: Thailand to Restrict Cannabis Use, New Prime Minister Says, After Decriminalization Last Year

“Pressure doesn’t come from being runner-up,” he says of the election. “Pressure comes from the need to [tackle] poverty, to improve the well-being of all Thais. Those are the pressures I face every day.”

Few Thais saw Srettha’s political rise coming. Formerly the CEO of property developer Sansiri, he only joined Pheu Thai in 2022 and held no public office until he scored the top one. After earning his undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Srettha then gained his M.B.A. at Claremont Graduate University. His nickname is Nid, which means tiny in Thai—a wry flick to that fact the 6 ft. 3 in. leader is anything but—and has a reputation for being both dynamic and short-tempered.

Srettha’s overwhelming desire is to cut to the chase. He is only the second Prime Minister in Thai history to install a bedroom at Government House rather than commute through Bangkok’s notoriously snarled streets. On the bed sits a stuffed-doll rendition of Srettha he was gifted, complete with trademark gaudy socks. (Srettha’s penchant for luminous red or pink socks has sparked heated social media debates on protocol.) Exposed racks of business suits and formal wear fill one corner; gym equipment occupies an anteroom. Aides glued to laptops crowd around a large communal desk.

Read More: Her Family Was Ousted From Power in Thailand. Now She Wants to Be Asia’s Youngest-Ever Female Leader

“I can have early-morning and late-night meetings, which is ideal,” he says of his new digs. “And I don’t have to disrupt the traffic with motorcades.” Not a single scrap of paper lies on Srettha’s official desk; he prefers to float between different teams depending on the discussion, though he always carries a tattered leather briefcase that he bought in Germany 36 years ago. “I think the only time I used the desk was to take a call from [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu,” he says.

Srettha is not the first businessman turned politician to strive for corporate dynamism in government, though all are confronted by the moment when the differences between boardroom and Cabinet are laid bare. For Srettha, that came barely a month into office when Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel claimed the lives of 39 Thai migrant workers and took 32 others captive. His government has since negotiated the release of all but eight hostages. “The news came out slowly, but what struck me most were the deaths,” he says. “Soon it was eight, nine, 10. I just remember feeling, When is it going to stop?”

Since then, getting the country moving has been his overriding focus. In addition to Prime Minister, Srettha also serves as Finance Minister, yet Thailand still hasn’t passed a national budget, post-election wrangling severely hamstringing his ability to enact meaningful change. The digital-wallet rollout has put him at loggerheads with the Bank of Thailand, which fears the $15 billion cash handout will spark inflation. “Being CEO of a company, you realize you have a limited amount of power,” he says. “But what I find most surprising is the lack of power that the Prime Minister has.”

Srettha arrives at party headquarters to give a press conference on Aug. 24, 2023
Srettha arrives at party headquarters to give a press conference on Aug. 24, 2023, just two days after he became prime minister.Lillian Suwanrumpha—AFP/Getty Images

Srettha less than most. Another more diminutive figure looms over Thai politics: Pheu Thai’s founder and patriarch, billionaire former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, returned from 15 years of self-imposed exile on the same day that Srettha was confirmed as Prime Minister. Thaksin was arrested at the airport and sentenced to eight years for historical convictions of corruption and abuse of power, though within hours the 74-year-old was transferred from jail cell to a hospital suite. On Feb. 18, he was granted special parole.

That Pheu Thai entered a Faustian pact with the military and palace to engineer Thaksin’s return has enraged both progressive Thais and diehard supporters, some of whom burned effigies in protest outside the party’s headquarters. “Pheu Thai betrayed the Thai people,” says Dr. Weng Tojirakarn, a former Pheu Thai lawmaker and a leader of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protest movement.

Bold reform plans like ending military conscription have since been shelved. The overwhelming impression across Thailand is that Srettha is merely a stooge for Thaksin and that same elite power nexus. “He’s a puppet,” says Chuwit Kamolvisit, an anti-corruption crusader. “Thaksin has the remote-control—right, left, Mr. Srettha has to go that way.”

Srettha bristles at the suggestion. “I am in control,” he says resolutely.

Read More: The Brothel King’s Last Crusade

Srettha has made it abundantly clear where his focus is: foreign investment, trade, and trying to energize a moribund economy. Many Thais fear that values are back-burnered as a result. True, Srettha’s government is pushing through legislation on marriage equality and LGBT rights, which have broad public backing and could boost tourism through so-called pink-dollar arrivals. Yet myriad other issues seem to be backsliding. Srettha is mulling rolling back reforms to Thailand’s fishing industry, for example, which were designed to curb once rampant human trafficking. “It’s pretty clear that human rights are not at the top of Srettha’s agenda,” says Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch.

Nor, it appears, is national reconciliation. Almost 2,000 young Thais are still facing prosecutions for actions connected to peaceful pro-democracy protests that gripped the nation in 2020 and 2021. On Feb. 12, two Thai journalists were arrested for interviewing an activist who spray-painted an anarchist symbol and a symbol critical of lèse-majesté royal-defamation laws on a Bangkok temple wall. Since November 2020, more than 200 people have been arrested under the draconian legislation, the youngest just 14 years old; last March a man was jailed for two years merely for selling satirical calendars featuring a rubber duck—a pro-democracy protest symbol. The Move Forward party’s manifesto pledge to reform the much-maligned law was one of the drivers behind its landslide election victory. Srettha, however, sees no issues. “The right to fair justice, the right to be heard, is there,” he insists.

Protesters hold up the three-finger salute and a portrait of Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party, during a protest in Bangkok on July 23, 2023.
Protesters hold up the three-finger salute and a portrait of Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of the Move Forward Party, during a protest in Bangkok on July 23, 2023. Andre Malerba—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Read More: ‘People Have Been Really Angry.’ The Political Journey of a Young Activist in Thailand’s Democracy Struggle

It’s ruthless pragmatism that he applies to foreign policy too. In October, Srettha met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing to solicit Chinese investment, especially for a $3 billion southern land-bridge project, which aims to link the Andaman Sea port of Ranong via road, rail, and gas pipeline to Chumphon on the Thai Gulf, some 60 miles away. Asked his impression of Xi, Srettha pauses. “As a world leader, there’s an aura about him,” he says eventually. “I think he wants to trade. I think he doesn’t look to create any problems. He’s not looking for war.”

The same cannot be said of Vladimir Putin, whom Srettha also met in October and invited to pay an official visit to Thailand despite an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for the Russian President related to the forced deportation of Ukrainian children. (Thailand has signed but not ratified the ICC statute.) Srettha’s cozying-up to Putin has naturally raised eyebrows in Washington. “We’ve made clear [to the Thai government] our concerns about Putin’s actions and activities, including the unprovoked aggression in Ukraine,” says a senior U.S. official, speaking on background because of the sensitive nature of discussions. The recent death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in a Siberian penal colony—which President Joe Biden called “yet more proof of Putin’s brutality”—has added to the diplomatic unease. Srettha shrugs off any criticism. “Is there evidence that [Putin] is responsible?” he asks. “It’s a crime committed on their soil, if it is, indeed, a crime. We don’t interfere with other nations’ sovereignty.”

Read More: How Tech Giants Turned Ukraine Into an AI War Lab

For Srettha, the more than 1 million free-spending Russian tourists who visit Thailand every year take precedence. He has offered 90-day visa-free entry to all Russian passport holders—three times as long as Americans enjoy. “Srettha will leave no stone unturned in trying to bring more tourists to Thailand and do business deals,” says Robertson.

But while Srettha tours the world hawking Thailand as an investment destination, it’s common knowledge that the nation is an oligopoly dominated by a handful of large conglomerates. For one, selling small-batch beer is banned in Thailand under a decades-old law that shields two huge family-run corporations that monopolize 90% of an $8 billion market. And for over two decades, one firm with close government ties has been awarded the sole duty-free concession to Bangkok’s main airports, creating a multi-billion-dollar family empire from scratch. “International companies would like to get into the telecom sector, the retail sector, the beverage sector, but everybody knows that these sectors are largely already occupied,” says Duncan McCargo, a professor and Thailand expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Although Pheu Thai’s manifesto pledged to trim the power of conglomerates, just one week after he was confirmed as Prime Minister, Srettha attended a dinner hosted by half a dozen heads of the nation’s largest companies, sharing the photo on X. Today, Srettha doesn’t see much wrong with the status quo, insisting there’s space for both Thai and foreign entrepreneurs to find market share. “I don’t think [the economy] is purely dominated by global conglomerates,” he says.

A large number of Thais disagree, as evidenced by the 14 million votes cast for Move Forward’s bold pledge for “de-centralization and demonopolization,” says the party’s former leader Pita-Limjaroenrat, who by rights should today be Prime Minister. Srettha “is still stuck in the era of trickle-down economics,” Pita tells TIME inside Thailand’s teak-and-glass parliament building.

Srettha is all too happy to make unscheduled visits to Bangkok’s Suvarna-bhumi International Airport to chastise staff on inefficiencies, and publicly lament Taylor Swift’s decision to play the Southeast Asian leg of her Eras Tour in Singapore over Bangkok. But eschewing the pomp and protocol of Government House is the easy part. Srettha will ultimately be judged on making tough choices to uplift society’s bottom even at the expense of his elite backers. Bold reform, after all, is what the Thai economy desperately needs.

“From being the CEO of a company to the CEO of a country, there are many more stakeholders,” he says. And just like in the boardroom, power is never divided equally.

With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Julia Zorthian/New York

Correction, March 17
The original version of this story misstated Srettha’s educational background. He did not study at Chulalongkorn University.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Charlie Campbell/Bangkok at charlie.campbell@time.com