Thai finance minister makes cameo on soap opera

AP News
Posted: Oct 13, 2010 6:16 AM
Thai finance minister makes cameo on soap opera

The latest Thai soap opera sensation is tall and strong-jaw handsome. He's also the country's finance minister.

The Oxford-educated minister, Korn Chatikavanij, made a cameo appearance on the popular Thai period drama "Vanida" on Tuesday night to broadcast a message about the government's bid to tackle loan shark debt.

The ministry estimates that about 1 million households owe money to loan sharks, who demand monthly interest of up to 40 percent. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's administration has been trying to eradicate the problem, which mainly involves low-income Thais in rural areas who don't live near banks or think banks only loan to the wealthy.

"Vanida" is a sappy drama set in World War II Thailand that revolves around a love triangle between a colonel, his aristocratic fiancee and the daughter of a merchant. Debt is central to the story line, in which the colonel's money problems get him into all kinds of trouble.

Korn has cited the show on his Facebook page to explain illegal debt collection practices, and the Finance Ministry collaborated with the show's producers for a three-minute short that followed the main show Tuesday night.

It begins with the three main characters talking about someone who owes money and the colonel says, "Nowadays the government is helping with debt."

Cue Korn, who enters in gray trousers, a white shirt, striped tie and suspenders.

"The Abhisit Vejjajiva government has already helped about 500,000 people tackle illegal debts," he says heroically, as the show's two starlets smile and bat their eyes. "For those who have registered but have yet to receive help, you can call our hot line at 1689."

Borrowers can get soft government loans of up to 200,000 baht ($6,600) to pay off loan sharks.

The three characters then turn to matters of the heart and ask Korn's advice.

"For this I have no opinion," the finance minister says, smiling.

The episode was replayed repeatedly on TV talk shows Wednesday.

A former investment banker, Korn was head of Thailand's office of JP Morgan Chase and Co. from 1999-2004. He has a strong fan base among urban professionals and women nationwide.

"He was so cute and funny," said Pattvarunya Kankittipatt, 25, a Bangkok-based manager of a clothing company. "I think it's a smart and entertaining way of raising the issue."

Thai politicians have long used popular media to reach the public. In 2006, then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra starred in his own reality show, in which he traveled to Thailand's poorest villages and camped out there in a bid to boost his popularity among his power base. Later that year, he was deposed by a coup.