King Power chief close to Phum Jai Thai, Newin and Prawit; 'key to the NCPO retaining power'
KING POWER has become well known as the company that runs English football club Leicester City, the new Premier League champions. But its well-connected billionaire owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, has also been linked to an alliance with political friends and the ruling generals that could result in a new political party, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Thanks to his massive wealth and strong connections, Vichai is seen by some as having the potential to be the “last piece in the jigsaw” needed for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to retain power via a new political party.
Vichai has maintained good ties with many key figures in the NCPO, including Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, one of the most influential figures in the ruling junta.
He has also been close friends for a long time with Bhum Jai Thai Party leader Anutin Charnvirakul and Newin Chidchob, the former Cabinet minister and political broker who owns Thailand’s leading football club Buriram United.
An alliance between Vichai, Newin and Anutin, plus support from Prawit –in the background, would be a coalition between a financial group and a power clique set for the new political landscape, sources told Nation TV’s Primetime with Thepchai Yong.
Vichai – estimated to be worth US$3.1 billion (Bt108.5 billion) – serves as chairman of both King Power and Leicester City FC.
In addition to the ruling junta, the wealthy businessman has managed to build good ties with both politicians and military figures in powerful posts. And thanks to these cosy relationships, his company has managed to win coveted deals from influential people at key times, including a concession to operate duty-free shops at major airports that has grown into a Bt68-billion-a-year business.
In 1995, King Power won a concession to operate duty-free shops at Don Mueang Airport, which was then Bangkok’s main international airport.
Two years later, the government of Chavalit Yongchaiyudh granted the company the sole right to manage a duty-free business at the World Trade Centre in downtown Bangkok for 10 years. The business had previously been managed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand. That was an important turning point for Vichai to become the country’s “king of duty-free business”.
The questionable deal led to questions as to whether it was against a Prime Minister’s Office regulation regarding partnership with a private business.
Another significant turning point came in 2004 when the government of Thaksin Shinawatra awarded King Power the right to operate duty-free shops at Suvarnabhumi, Bangkok’s new main airport, for 10 years. Later, the company also won a concession to operate duty-free shops at four major provincial airports for 10 years, again without any bidding.
During the coup in 2006, a Bangkok hotel owned by Vichai’s company was used by the Thaksin camp as an “anti-coup headquarters”. However, after the coup-makers, led by then Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, managed to seize power from Thaksin, Vichai still succeeded in building good ties with the coup leader. Indeed, he ended up becoming a regular guest at his house.
Political changes have never affected Vichai’s business, whichever political party or power clique has taken government, thanks mainly to its chairman’s political connections and good ties with all major groups of power.