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Thaksin 'always knew he could be PM' - aide

March 13, 2001

OF the members of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's inner circle, Thanong Bidaya is seen as one of the most trusted. He is happy in his role as private fund manager of the Shinawatra family, responsible for looking after its telecom empire.

Speaking on Suthichai Yoon's "Nation News Talk" programme scheduled to be broadcast this evening on TV Channel 9, Thanong gives an insider's view of what makes the country's new leader tick.

Saying he had no political ambitions, Thanong explained that he declined when Thaksin asked him during the election campaign whether he was interested in a political job.

"I told him it would be better if I stayed on as guardian of his wealth at Shin [Corporations Plc]," Thanong said. "I now serve as director at a number of subsidiaries within Shin."

Thanong served as finance minister for four months in the Chavalit Yongchaiyudh government and played a crucial role in securing a US$17.2 billion bailout programme from the International Monetary Fund in 1997.

Like most businessmen, Thaksin struggled during his early years after leaving the Police Department. He started out in the movie and condo business, borrowing money from Thai Military Bank.

Thanong, then in his early 30s and two years older than Thaksin, held a junior position at the bank. When Thaksin ran into financial trouble, Thanong, now 53, was the one who dealt with the future prime minister's bad loan.

"I was the one who sent him a notice asking him to repay the debt," Thanong said. This was before Thaksin entered the computer business.

"He's kind of a daring businessman. When he falls, he is not afraid to stand up again. He is not afraid of problems," Thanong said.

After leaving the bank during Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi's tenure as president, Thanong joined Thaksin's Shinawatra Computer and Communication Co when it was engaged in satellite and cable-TV ventures. Thanong's contribution to the Shin Group lay largely in risk management, fund-raising and policy management.

Asked how Thaksin had built up his enormous wealth, which according to one estimate stands at Bt50 billion, Thanong said the prime minister's wealth was concentrated mostly in his 80-per-cent holding in Shin and in the cellular-phone business operated by Advanced Info Services.

During the stock-market boom, Shin climbed to between Bt300 and Bt400 a share, then to Bt500 and eventually to Bt900. After the stock was split to make it less expensive for small investors, it climbed back to Bt500.

In this way Thaksin accumulated his wealth, derived mostly from the stock market. During this time Thanong played a role in saving Shin. "For any business that derived its income in baht, we would borrow in baht. And for any business that received dollar earnings, we borrowed in dollars. With this coverage, there was no risk," Thanong said.

Despite the baht devaluation in 1997, which wrecked the balance sheets of most telecom companies, Shin Corps was saved by virtue of its decision to cover its positions in foreign-currency loans. During the recent parliamentary debate on the Thaksin government's policy statement, the opposition tried to create the impression the prime minister might have enjoyed insider knowledge of the baht devaluation.

But Thanong said no evidence had ever been produced to substantiate this claim.

In fact, he said, Thaksin had suffered foreign-exchange losses when the baht was devalued in 1984, so he had previous experience in foreign-exchange dealings.

Describing Thaksin's character, Thanong said: "He is a bold man with vision. When he bid for the cellular business, he went so far as to promise Bt30 billion in returns to the government. People said he was crazy.

"But he knew what he was after. In his bidding for the satellite business he promised Bt1.4 billion while other competitors did not have the guts."

Thaksin knew the telecom industry was the business of the future, Thanong said. When the then budding tycoon asked about the feasibility of telecoms, Thanong told him to go ahead and do it.

Thanong said he did not know how Thaksin had lobbied for his business. "I just concentrated on the contracts and helped him borrow money from the bank for financing," he said.

While building his empire, Thaksin talked frequently about politics. For Thaksin "problems in politics were not that difficult to resolve, and there was no question to him that he could be prime minister one day. He is a man of high self-confidence."





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