'It's not true about Thaksin's involvement in the energy business in neighbouring countries, not even in Myanmar," claims Pongsak Raktapongpaisal, the newly appointed energy minister whom critics believe was endorsed by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to control the ministry, which has huge potential contracts at stake.
New Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisal in a file photo taken in January. He says he never lobbied for a cabinet post by citing his loyalty to Thaksin Shinawatra.
"Thaksin never instructs, nor does Prime Minister Yingluck [Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister]," said Mr Pongsak in an interview with Post Today to counter the rumour that he was sent directly by Thaksin to advance the Shinawatra family's energy interests in Myanmar and the joint natural gas development with Cambodia on the overlapping continental shelf.
Mr Pongsak said natural gas exploration in the overlapping area is not possible in the near future as the issue of border demarcation between the two countries is yet to be settled.
It is the duty of the Foreign and Defence ministries to take care of border and securities issues. The Energy Ministry has no authority to get involved and has to wait for the National Security Council to decide how to proceed with talks with Cambodia.
"The dwindling supply of natural gas in the Gulf of Siam is supplemented by importing LNG [liquefied natural gas] from other countries so that Thai people will continue to be energy sufficient. We have yet to consider natural gas exploration in the disputed overlapping continental shelf area. We do not have a specified date to hold talks yet," Mr Pongsak stressed.
Asked whether there would be a joint development if the Foreign Ministry could successfully conclude border talks, Mr Pongsak interjected and said it is not possible at the moment as the Foreign Ministry must wait for the atmosphere between the two countries to cool down.
Mr Pongsak did not refute the rumour that he is personally close to Thaksin.
"I have two roles. One is as his subordinate. The other is that Thaksin regards me as a loyal friend as he is forced to stay overseas," he said.
"When I have free time, I always pay him a visit to make him happy because I still think of him as my boss, my senior friend. I have never denied our personal relationship, and when the CRES [Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation] summoned me in 2010 to ask about my relationship with Thaksin, I asked them back whether it was wrong to be loyal? I haven't done anything bad.
"Sometimes I go to play golf with him for entertainment, stay for two or three days. Sometimes I stay for one week before flying back. Sometimes I accompany him to visit this or that country, but never engage in joint business. How could I? A partner must have wealth. Mine is only a small business."
Mr Pongsak insists his appointment as energy minister is due to his personal capabilities. He was a Thai Rak Thai executive and when the party was dissolved and 111 of its executives were barred from running for political office for five years, he still worked for the People Power Party and Pheu Thai Party behind the scenes. He said he never lobbied Ms Yingluck for a cabinet post by citing his loyalty to Thaksin.
"I never did," he said, adding: "I had said before that I could help the party in any capacity, not necessarily as a minister. During my absence from politics, I found that my life was peaceful. My mind was at peace. Therefore, it would not become me to lobby, to ask for favours, for a reward as a loyal subordinate. It's just not true. Certainly not."
Asked if he had known before the reshuffle announcement that he would get the energy post, Mr Pongsak admitted he knew in advance, but at first thought he would become a deputy prime minister. However, Ms Yingluck told him that he would get the Energy Ministry because she considered energy to be important and needed to be handled with care.
She instructed him to make sure that the poor and low-income earners should continue to benefit from subsidies, while the Oil Fund must be managed in such a way as to not be in the red in the long run.
"In fact, I prefer the Education Ministry the most because the 'One District, One Dream School' [project] which I champion, is still going strong.
"Children in these schools have developed well, much more than I expected. Teachers and teaching are much improved. The participation of the local people also helps to strengthen these schools," Mr Pongsak said.
"During the rumours about the cabinet reshuffle, several people wanted me to get the Education Ministry but I told them not to lobby on my behalf because I believe that appointing a minister is the prime minister's prerogative.
"No one should pressure the prime minister, otherwise it becomes mob rule. They understood and stopped lobbying."
Mr Pongsak, who supervised three other ministries in the past, said there were urgent tasks for the Energy Ministry to undertake.
At present the state provides subsidies to several sectors, including households and transport. The country needs to reduce subsidies to certain sectors while continuing to help the poor.
This is hard to implement as it will affect the cost of doing business. The ministry must encourage the efficient use of energy for transport to reduce costs as in 2015 Thailand will enter the Asean Economic Community which will open up agriculture and industry within Asean.
As to a rumour that Thaksin's recent visit to Myanmar was to pave the way for his family to do business in the energy-rich country, Mr Pongsak was immediately dismissive.
"Nothing of the sort happened, because PTTEP [PTT Exploration and Production Pcl] has long secured exploration rights there, and is now drilling," he said.
"The talks were concluded several years ago and PTTEP has imported natural gas for a long time now. I don't know much about drilling activities since PTTEP is an independent organisation. The Energy Ministry's duty is to regulate only.
"There is really no involvement by Thaksin in gas and oil in Myanmar, nor in Cambodia. Malaysia's Joint Development Area (JDA) with Thailand was concluded a long time ago."
He added: "The golden age of finding oil and gas in neighbouring countries is finished. We must venture out to do deep-sea drilling, which is difficult. It is inevitable that the costs of oil and gas will become expensive in the future. There is no more cheap energy to be found near shore.
"Thaksin could not instruct me to find oil and gas near Thailand because all the available blocs have been given out. So it is not true that Thaksin has given a direct order [to find oil and gas]. It is only speculation."
With a good reputation for compromise and reconciliation, Mr Pongsak was asked about his role in softening the blow for those who missed out in the cabinet reshuffle, especially red-shirt co-leader Jatuporn Prompan.
"I didn't really know who was to get what or who [would miss out], because I have no authority. Jatuporn did not come me about anything nor to complain about not getting a post. Normally we are close and I think that he is sincere and open. I think that he regards me in the same way."
Asked how national reconciliation can be achieved, Mr Pongsak said: "Every side must cool down. I notice that when various cases are in the law courts, everyone gets calmer. If we wait for a little longer, real reconciliation can happen when people really cool down. Then talking with reason will be easier and the hoped for national reconciliation will drive the country forward."
With about 40 years of political experience, Mr Pongsak was asked to rate Prime Minister Yingluck. He said he believed Ms Yingluck could lead Pheu Thai and the government to complete two terms as she possessed some of Thaksin's characteristics such as having a good memory and always following the results of her orders.
"Many people thought Ms Yingluck was inexperienced and did not know political issues," he said.
"I say she is a fast learner and as time goes by she knows more than anyone as she receives information from many sides and angles."