Thai PM Prayuth Picks a Loose Cannon

ML Panadda Diskul, the newly appointed Minister in Thailand’s Prime Minister’s Office, recently entered into a political spectacle with a bang, but not quite the one Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha was anticipating.

Panadda is the former governor of Chiangmai and a great-grandson of Prince Damrong Rajanuphap, the so-called founder of the modern Thai education system and provincial administration.

A nemesis of the family of the ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, Panadda has set out to obliterate the former prime minister’s influence from politics. When Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, was prime minister, Panadda made known his disapproval of her government.

As governor of Chiangmai, the Shinawatras’ northern stronghold, Panadda alienated the red shirts. With backing from the royal palace, he survived several gubernatorial reshuffles.

The ruling Pheu Thai government agreed to leave him alone. But after the coup of May 2014, Panadda emerged as the kingdom’s new rising star. Prayuth, the coup leader, specifically handpicked Panadda to run the Prime Minister’s Office.

The choice of Panadda is understandable. He has connections with the palace. He is also a self-proclaimed anti-Thaksin figure, with a mission to maintain the power and position of the aristocrats. Prayuth perceived that Panadda would add a layer of legitimacy to his military government. How wrong Prayuth was.

Earlier, Panadda declared war against members of the local administrations. He posted a remark on Facebook accusing the Provincial Administration Organizations (PAO) of committing and condoning corruption.

“Whoever wants to live a luxurious life at the expense of taxpayer money without shame should go into the private sector. Do not become a politician or civil servant, because they will just be a disgrace to the institution,” Panadda said.

His statement was designed to kill two birds with one stone. On the one hand, Panadda has been working towards reducing the power of the local administrative organizations and increasing the central government’s role and power.

On the other hand, Panadda exploited the provincial administration’s behavior to symbolize the malaise of corruption supposedly planted by the Thaksin clan. Either way, Panadda has named himself as “corruption-buster.”

Together, Prayuth and Panadda sought to apply the policy of constraining the administrative offices’ power, arguing that local politicians have contributed toward the country’s deep polarization and that they continue to exploit local machinations for their own political benefit. In his most famous statement, Panadda said that these local influential men enjoy drinking expensive wines, some costing hundreds of thousands of baht a bottle. They also flew first class, using the money of the local administrations.

No matter where Panadda went, he carried the anti-corruption message with him. Appearing on television, Panadda reminded civil servants that they must be corruption-free. Moreover, he told them to strictly uphold King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s philosophy of economic sufficiency.

Supporters of Panadda praised him for being an “apple which does not fall far from the tree.” To them, Panadda is as immaculate as a Virgin Mary.

But lately, cracks have begun to show in Panadda’s campaign to build a corruption-free Thailand.

Before the cabinet was formed, Panadda proposed to Prayuth a Bt300-million (US$9.3 million) budget to renovate Government House. The allocation of this huge budget went ahead at the expense of cutting down other budgets, such as providing tablets and computers to school students. The government also thought about giving up the universal health care scheme, first initiated by Thaksin. But after strong protests from the public, the plan was shelved.

As Government House is in the process of renovation, the public continues to be shocked by a number of hidden receipts. It was revealed that the government had ordered 100 sets of state-of-the-art microphones, costing Bt145,000 per unit. On the supplier’s website, they cost only Bt99,000 per unit, more than 30 percent cheaper than what the government had paid. Panadda, in showcasing the newly refurbished meeting rooms at Government House to an army of reporters, proudly presented the pricey microphones, boasting that they were the exact model of those used in the White House in Washington, DC.

Soon, news of the expensive microphones circulated in social media. Critics of the government were quick to search for the real price of the microphones, which they claimed were more than 30 percent cheaper if ordered online. They also discovered that the government had new curtains tailored at a cost of Bt45 million. To celebrate the formation of Prayuth’s new cabinet, the government chose an extravagant banquet from the 5-star Dusit Thani Hotel.

The massive overspending of the government budget infuriated many segments in the society. They requested Panadda, who is not just the Minister of Prime Ministerial Office, but also the permanent secretary of the Office of the Prime Minister, to look into the matter immediately.

Clearly, some misconduct has taken place inside Government House. The prime suspect has been Panadda, the anti-corruption hero. Defending himself, Panadda announced that he was not responsible for the renovation of the government office. Asked by reporters if such overspending of the national budget contradicted his upholding of the king’s philosophy of economic sufficiency, Panadda had no answer.

Under extreme pressure, Panadda decided to close down his Facebook page. In his last message, he reaffirmed his fight against corruption while urging government servants to stand on morality as a guiding light.

But evidently, as Panadda fever has backfired so has his anti-corruption motto. He is now under constant attack from anti-coup groups in Thailand. Some have called him a “royal parasite” who thrives on hypocrisy.

This political drama calls into question the supposedly clean image of the military government. Claiming to reform Thai politics, the Prayuth regime has dug its own grave by adding incompetent members, like Panadda, to his list of ministers.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies