BANGKOK — Former Deputy Premier and Foreign Affairs Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul, whose controversial tenure saw Thailand fighting a historic legal battle with Cambodia, died on Wednesday. He was 67.
Surapong died of liver cancer, according to his family. He served in both ministries under PM Yingluck Shinawatra from 2011 to 2014, when the elected government was overthrown in a military coup.
A loyal supporter of Yingluck and her older brother, ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra, Surapong landed in controversy when he granted a diplomatic passport to Thaksin, even though the former leader was a fugitive from his corruption conviction under a Thai court.
Surapong gave the passport to Thaksin on Jan. 1, 2011, supposedly as a “New Year Gift.”
He was born in Chiang Mai in 1953, the same birthplace as Thaksin and Yingluck. Surapong studied at Khon Kaen University and later completed his doctoral degree in engineering from Akron University in Ohio, the United States.
Surapong also led Thailand’s effort to contest a claim by the Cambodian government that it owned a strip of land close to the Preah Vihear Temple. The temple itself was awarded to Cambodia under a 1962 verdict by the international court.
In a highly anticipated ruling by the Hague in 2013, the judges rejected Cambodia’s claim of the strip, though it stood by an earlier decision on the temple’s ownership. The new verdict also urged Thailand and Cambodia to treat Preah Vihear Temple as a shared cultural heritage.
Surapong would later face legal consequences for his politics. He was stripped of office on May 7, 2014, when the Constitutional Court ruled he abused his power for his involvement in removing an official opposed to Thaksin.
The military staged a coup two weeks later, ousting the remnants of Yingluck’s government.
Surapong was later sentenced to two years in prison for giving the passport to Thaksin, though the sentence was suspended. The passport he granted was eventually repealed by PM Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2015.