Shining a light on ‘Fixed Stars’ – the rebel MPs rocking Thai coalition’s unity

The prime minister and nine Cabinet members managed to sail through the recent censure vote, but the voting has rejiggered a rift between the coalition’s two largest partners.

Six MPs from coalition-leader Palang Pracharath abstained from the vote on Transport Minister Saksayam Chidchob of the Bhumjaithai Party, angering its politicians.

Bhumjaithai leaders pointed out that “political etiquette” dictates that coalition MPs vote for censured ministers regardless of their party affiliations. Without naming names, its MPs accused the six House debutants of sacrificing their government allies to seek attention for themselves.

On February 24, Bhumjaithai MPs took apparent revenge by staging a walkout after government whips successfully put off the second reading of the Parliament debate on charter amendment drafts.

Palang Pracharath leader and Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan, who was also grilled by the opposition, was reportedly upset by the abstentions – which came despite his party’s resolution to ensure equal approval votes for all targeted ministers.

The leading coalition party has set up a panel to investigate its six rebel MPs, along with another who abstained from voting on two other Cabinet members.

The six rebels are known collectively as the Dao Roek (Fixed Stars) faction.

Dao Roek comprises five Bangkok MPs – Siripong Rassamee, Korranit Ngamsukonrattana, Pada Vorakanon, Thitipat Chotedechachainan and Thanikan Pornpongsaroj – plus party-list MP Watanya Wongopasi, who is regarded as the faction’s leader.

All are parliamentary debutants, having entered the House after the 2019 general election.

‘Best option available’

Watanya, aka “Madame Dear”, apologised for the faction but claimed the six MPs felt compelled to abstain in order to fulfil their duty as representatives of the Thai public. “We tried our best to follow the party resolution by opting not to vote for the censure motion,” she said, adding that the MPs would accept “any kind of consequence”.

Watanya, 36, was possibly referring to their possible expulsion from the party as punishment.

Saksayam, the transport minister and Bhumjaithai’s secretary-general, is viewed as a proxy for his brother Newin Chidchob, who “retired” from politics years ago but is thought to maintain close connections with the second-largest coalition party.

Revenge motives? 

Observers say the Dao Roek faction has strong motives for refusing to support Bhumjaithai in the censure vote.

Bhumjaithai has been involved in a legal dispute with Nation Multimedia Group, for which Watanya’s husband Shine Bunnag serves as president of the executive board.

In November 2019, Shine and Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul traded barbs after Bhumjaithai MPs and members filed police complaints against Nation TV editors for accusing Saksayam of a conflict of interest.

More recently, investors linked to the media group got involved in a legal row with the Transport Ministry over its mass-transit projects. Details from the legal row formed part of the opposition’s no-confidence motion against Saksayam.

Born on November 13, 1984, Watanya graduated from Thammasat University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts before taking up a position at a stockbroking firm. There, she met a client who eventually became her husband, Watanya told Manager Online three years ago. The couple have two children.

National football team manager

In 2016, Watanya, then 32, was appointed manager of Thailand’s under-23 men’s football team, leading them to a successful title defence at the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games.

However, she stepped down from the post soon after, after the Football Association of Thailand’s decision to follow the international trend for manager-less national teams.

In November 2018 she became a member of Palang Pracharath, which was born of the junta regime that came to power in the 2014 coup.

Before entering politics, she was a director of four media companies and a major shareholder of News Network Corporation, which acquired Nation Multimedia Group in 2015.

Watanya said she sold her media shares in December 2018. However, some opposition politicians accused her of breaking the law by still holding shares in the media company when she registered to contest the 2019 election. She rejected the allegation and sued her accusers.

 

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS)