How Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha flourished amid Thailand's political turmoil

Nicola Smith
Leicester City Football Club owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha - AP

Thailand’s elite was mourning one of its own on Monday as Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester City's owner and the Southeast Asian country’s seventh richest man, was confirmed to have died in a helicopter crash

Mr Srivaddhanaprabha, 60, was a high-profile figure in Thailand’s sporting, business and political circles, after emerging from relative obscurity to win access to the exclusive club of well-connected Bangkok-based oligarchs who managed to amass their fortunes despite years of coups and political turmoil. 

Born into a Thai-Chinese family, he struck gold by tapping into the duty free business on the cusp of Thailand’s tourist boom. 

The ambitious Leicester owner’s success was then sealed by gaining favour with the ruling classes of the day. 

He was given his first big break by the government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, shortly before they were ousted by a military coup in September 2006. 

Mr Thaksin’s administration awarded Mr Srivaddhanaprabha’s King Power the lucrative duty-free concession at Bangkok’s newly-opened Suvarnabhumi airport. 

The football tycoon's death was front page news in his native Thailand Credit: Jorge Silva/Reuters

The former leader, who now lives in self-imposed exile after being convicted in a corruption case that he claims was politically motivated, told the Financial Times on Sunday that he was shocked about the news of a “very good man and close friend.”

Although he had prospered under Mr Thaksin’s regime, the political upheaval that followed the coup did not stop the billionaire’s star from rising. 

He was granted his surname, Srivaddhanaprabha - changing it from Raksriaksorn, the name of his birth – by the late King Bhumibol in 2012, using a royal tradition for Thai citizens who have made great contributions to the country.

The name means “light of progressive glory” and the honour was a huge boost to his reputation.

Mr Srivaddhanaprabha appeared able to nurture his business while spanning deep political rifts within the nation. 

Mr Thaksin told the FT that he had worked behind the scenes to try to broker reconciliation between the Thai military, which recently returned to power in a 2014 coup, and other political figures. “He tried to talk to everyone to let them come together for the good of our country,” he said. 

However, not everyone viewed the nexus of his political and business connections in a positive light. 

The dissident blog, Political Prisoners in Thailand, which advocates for those held in Thai prisons for their political views, said media reports since his death had given a “gloss” to his life, and posted links to their own investigations of the tycoon since 2009. 

One of his influential friends was Nevin Chidchob, a politician and fellow football baron, who owns local league champion Buriram United football team and a motorsports empire centred around the Chang racing circuit in northeastern Thailand.

Mr Chidchob, a key figure in the Bhumjaithai political party, was at a Bangkok hotel when the news of the accident filtered through. He has so far made no comment on the tragedy but was photographed, grim-faced, as he embraced his son in the hotel carpark. 

On Sunday night, Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul told veteran journalist Suthichai Yoon via a Facebook Live interview: "We just lost someone who made big contributions to the public. I am sure his legacy will live on,” reported the Straits Times. 

"He is a self-made man, worked hard and loved friends dearly," he said. "I told him that I loved riding horses and the next day a nice horse was sent to me... That's the way he was,” he added. 

Thailand’s footballing world was more vociferous about Mr Srivaddhanaprabha’s untimely demise, with many well-known names spending an angst-ridden Sunday hoping for news that he had not been on board the helicopter. 

Asarapa Sena Muang, who attended the match with her husband Kiattisuk Senamuang, a football manager and former player, wrote on her Instagram account:  “We are all sitting and waiting for the news at the hotel. No matter what, we are here to send support to the family of Mr Chairperson #ihope itsnottrue #hopingfortheemptychopper.” 

Nualphan Lamsam, the manager of the Thai women’s national football team who is also known as Madame Pang, took to Facebook, saying “Pang and family and the football team members send their support to Mr Vichai Srivaddhanabrabha and family.”

But by Monday morning, all hope was lost. 

The Football Association of Thailand dispatched its chief, Somyat Poompanmoung, to the UK to deal with the aftermath of the crash. 

“It was with profound sadness that we learnt of the sudden and tragic passing of the Chairman of the King Power and Leicester City Football Club,” the association posted in a statement. 

“The Football Association of Thailand extend our deepest condolences for Srivaddhanaprabha family and families of those who lose their lives in this tragedy.”