Park Statue Scandal Puts Thai Junta on Defense

Thailand has undergone an extraordinary paroxysm of repression in recent weeks, with actions that include the arrest of a 27-year-old factory worker for insulting King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s dog Thong Daeng; the worker faces up to 37 years in prison.

In a major breach of diplomatic protocol, US Ambassador Glyn T. Davies has been threatened with arrest for insulting the monarchy by voicing concern over long lèse-majesté prison sentences. Facebook users are being charged for lèse-majesté for clicking “Like” on satirical Facebook pictures of the royal family. The country has been shaken at the very top of military and police circles by a series of mysterious suicides, deaths and disappearances.

What is going on? With the country already in lockdown since the May 2014 coup led by Army Chief turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the increased level of repression seems to have little to do with restoring order or protecting the monarchy and a lot to do with protecting the military and the police from mounting scandals.

Scandals in Uniform

According to a source outside Thailand who has extensive contacts in the country, the campaign has gone well beyond protecting the looming royal succession to barricading the military and police from scandals that go to the core of both establishments.

In addition to restoring order after a long-running political crisis, the military supposedly took power to clean up graft generated by the Pheu Thai government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra, who is now on trial for corruption. She is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who built the country’s most formidable political machine before he was deposed as premier in 2006.

For years, telecom tycoon Thaksin ran the government from exile via surrogates, preserving the loyalty of his so-called Red Shirt followers, the millions of rural families who benefited from the social programs he put in place.

But Prayuth and his allies in the National Committee for Peace and Order have been flailing around to stop criticism of corruption in both the military and the police. The cops took a major blow last week when Thailand’s chief human trafficking investigator, Police Major General Paween Pongsirin, went public in Australia to say he had fled in fear of his life for attempting to expose evidence of human trafficking and other criminality at the very top of police ranks. The Thai police are now threatening to sue Paween for defamation.

“I think he may very well get sued,” a source told Asia Sentinel. “The current police chief [Chakthip Chaijinda] is really angry with Paween and wants to nail him.” Police have reportedly visited Thai newsrooms to quash any further stories about Paween. Chakthip, appointed in August, was the youngest of five deputy chiefs who were candidates but he has close ties with key military officers after having graduated from the Armed forces Academics Preparatory School.

A sleazy walk in the park

“These NCPO guys don't have a plan,” a source said. “Diplomats say they are in crisis management all the time, just bouncing from crisis to crisis. So this past couple of weeks it's been about the park. The NCPO evidently recognizes that the Rajabhakti Park scandal is a serious threat to their legitimacy, and their image as incorruptible defenders of the monarchy."

The Rajabhakti reference is to suggestions of vast corruption surrounding a park built under military direction in Hua Hin, the site of the king’s summer palace 200 km. south of Bangkok. Intended to venerate Thailand’s kings from the Sukhothai era to the current Chakri dynasty, the project has ensnared former Army chief Udomdej Sitabutr and half a dozen other officers who are believed to have enriched themselves in the building of the park by commissioning massive bronze castings of the kings. The US$28 million park was dedicated by King Bhumibol and built with public and private donations. Names of the officers involved and allegations of what has been stolen have appeared in a deeply detailed schematic on Wikileaks, which can be found here.

Prayuth’s Kryptonite

"If Prayuth styles himself as Superman, then Rajabhakti Park has become his Kryptonite [the rare element that could weaken Superman] because all in one it implicates the military in corruption just like the professional politicians he condemns, and shows that covering up corruption is even more sacrosanct than honoring the memory of dead kings,” the source said.

Prosecuting Udomdej appears to be a non-starter because he is a core member of the National Council of Peace and Order and has been elevated from army chief to deputy ministry of defense. Instead, police and the military have come down hard on dissidents for creating an infographic on Facebook detailing the people allegedly caught in the park's vast cost overruns.

Thanakorn Sirphaibun, 27, was awaiting a hernia operation when he was dragged out of a Bangkok hospital in early December and charged with lèse-majesté, inciting disorder and violating the Computer Crimes Act. He is being held in Bangkok Remand Prison. Other suspects have apparently been charged with lèse-majesté, although the creation of the diagram seems to have little to do with defaming the royal family, unless calling attention to corruption in the park can be construed as dishonoring the king.

Disgruntled Officers go to Press

The story blew up in November when anonymous military officials told the Thai media that prices for land, equipment and construction had been kited up sharply. The owners of the foundries were hit for 10 percent kickbacks on seven statues, reported to cost the equivalent of US$1.1 million each. Just about everything in the park was an opportunity for graft, including the sale of T-shirts, plaques and fundraising events.

“The hypocrisy is so thick in this Rajabhakti Park corruption scandal that it plays right to the Red Shirts' core argument – which is that Thai governance and the legal system is full of double standards, and how you are dealt with depends on where you sit and who your friends are.”

The disgust over the affair has grown so widespread that the normally cowed Bangkok Post earlier this week accused Prayuth of attempting to divert attention from the scandal by suggesting in his Dec. 11 weekly address that ID cards be created showing the owner’s occupation and salary to promote transparency. The paper said Prayuth sounded like a “jolly Santa” for coming up with the idea.

"Prayuth knows there is no possible defense of the corruption that has happened at the park because it involves such powerful figures among his own leadership, so instead he has opted for a cover-up, ordering a pursuit of Red Shirt protesters who have attempted to march on the park and put the diagrams on Facebook.

“The argument is that we've got the guns, the forces and untrammeled power in article 44 of the interim constitution so it doesn't matter what you think - this conversation is over. That may work for now, but the anger and resentments are growing and eventually things are going to start bubbling over,” said a source.