Thai Junta to Prosecute Corruption Protesters

In November of last year, the junta that took power in Thailand in May of 2014 was faced with an embarrassing scandal, not only because of the corruption involved but because it involves the inflated price of construction of a park to venerate the country’s seven Chakri Dynasty kings from the Sukhothai era to the reign of the ailing 89-year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

The project ensnared former Army chief Udomdej Sitabutr and half a dozen other officers who are believed to have enriched themselves in the building of the 36-hectare park by commissioning massive 13-meter-high bronze castings of the kings. The Bt1 billion (US$28 million) Rajabhakti 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.

However, prosecuting Udomdej and his co-conspirators is a nonstarter. 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. So as has become normal in Thailand since the National Council for Peace and Order took over, instead of prosecuting the officers involved in enriching themselves, the junta is going after protesters who took a train ride to the park, near the king’s summer palace in Hua Hin.

Because the scandal involves such powerful figures in his own leadership, former Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who named himself Prime Minister following the coup, has opted to cover it up, ordering a pursuit of protesters. The riders on the train have become collateral damage.

The affair started last December when 36 students and activists headed to Hua Hin to protest the corruption. Officials took them off a train at the Ban Pong station 70 km south of Bangkok. They were held for three hours before being released. Eleven refused to sign forms barring them from political activism or leaving the country without permission. The 11 later received summons to hear charges against them.

Last Monday, the prosecutor of the Bangkok Military Court indicated it would prosecute six of them including a human rights lawyer, two Thammasat University students and three activists for violating an order prohibiting political gatherings of five or more persons, which carries the threat of imprisonment up to six months and a fine of not more than Bt10,000 Baht (US$285) or both. The six were bailed at Bt40,000 each and were prohibited from leaving the country or engaging in political activity. It is the first use of a controversial section of the interim constitution. Five remain unindicted. One, Thanet Anantawong, chose to go into exile. As with other cases involving protesters, the six who are threatened with prosecution are likely to be convicted.

“Everybody knows the military is covering up serious corruption in the construction of the park, and the fact that senior NCPO figures are quite likely involved made it a top priority at the time the story broke to quickly stifle the news of it,” said a longtime western observer based in Bangkok who asked to remain anonymous because criticism could get him arrested. “Now we're seeing the other side of this, which is the NCPO throwing the book at the protesters who were trying to raise concerns about the park and about NCPO's efforts to shut up everyone talking about it.”

The scandal demonstrates yet again that far from taking power to clean up corruption, top members of the junta are into it up to their ears. It is one of a legion of such cases, including a human trafficking scandal involving top officials that impelled the lead investigator, Police Major General Paween Pongsirin, to flee for his life to Australia because of threats if he didn’t call off the investigation. In another case, the military continues to use a bogus mine detector that could get soldiers blown up despite the fact that its developer, a UK con man named Gary Bolton, went to jail for seven years in 2013 for manufacturing fake devices. The GT200 mine detector has cost the government and security forces the equivalent of US$30 million, the bulk of which is believed to have gone into generals’ pockets. The devices, which cost almost nothing to make, cost the Thai military US$16,670 each. It is still in use despite the fact that tests run by the former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva discovered the devices worked only four times in 20 tests, even below the law of probability.

Those are two of dozens such cases in which military officers and top police officials have continued to line their pockets.

“They have their share of corruption and crony networks prepared to feed off government projects. What's particularly appalling in this case is the corrupt behaviors are so ingrained in the military that even a project to honor the memory of past Thai kings is not sacrosanct from skimming."

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,” a source told Asia Sentinel in December when the scandal hit the public.

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. However, it seems highly unlikely that public frustration and anger are going to boil over any time soon.

“Everybody is waiting for the king to die,” said a Thai businessman in phone interview. Although the monarch has spent most of the last half-decade in hospitals, there appears no immediate danger to his health.