Another land scandal yet rocks Thai politics

Some major political changes in Thailand followed high-profile troubles with the land. A Democrat-led government crumbled in the 1980s after some politicians of the ruling party were accused of grabbing plots earmarked for the poor in the South under a land reform programme. Thaksin Shinawatra fled a jail sentence in 2000s after the Ratchadapisek land controversy had blown up in his face. Now, it’s the Juangroongruangkit family’s turn to be very worried.

The on-going case has all the potentials to be politically explosive. Evidence, again, has been stacked against the Juangroongruangkits but charges of political conspiracy will also be rampant. Added intrigues concern a major irony, which involves the facts that Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has been spearheading a campaign for transparency in management of royal assets but his younger brother has been accused of attempting to do a murky deal with those managing royal assets.

The previous land scandals mentioned above rattled those in the government. This one rocks an opposition star politician. Although evidence and investigation so far have centered around Sakulthorn and nobody else, it is a curious coincidence that Thanathorn’s Progressive Movement suffered a stunning defeat in last Sunday’s elections of Provincial Administrative Organisation (PAO) nationwide. Whether or how much the Sakulthorn land case impacted the PAO elections in 76 provinces, in which all of 42 Progressive Movement candidates for PAO chairmanship lost, is debatable.

What is unarguable is crucial. There are two main facts in the case. The first is that Sakulthorn himself has admitted to giving Bt20 million to two persons convicted of fraud. The other has to do with the conviction verdict, which clearly states that the money was to be used “dishonestly” as a bribe so Sakulthorn’s real estate company could rent a lucrative plot in Chidlom from the Crown Property Bureau.

The two convicted persons, one is a former Crown Property Bureau official, were found guilty of a scam dating back more than three years ago. The scam involved faking of documents to convince Sakulthorn that his real estate company stood a great chance of renting the vast plot from the bureau after a rental contract with the Telephone Organisation of Thailand expired. Apparently believing that a lucrative deal was in sight, he gave them the money.

Apart from those facts, the case is a massive blur and controversy, involving potentially senior police officials and top prosecutors. Gossips have begun on whether this was similar to the Red Bull scandal that involves a conspicuously long justice process for what should have been a simple traffic tragedy.

In a public statement issued a few days ago, Sakulthorn admitted to giving the money to the two persons found guilty of fraud by the court, but he insisted that the money was innocently paid as a “commission fee” and that he was actually a victim of a scam. Legal experts have different opinions. Some compared him to a parent who gave money to schemers who promised him a school place for his kid. The others asked whether a thieve duped into breaking into a wrong house should get away with it.

Sakulthorn’s critics also noted that “commission fees” were normally given when deals are completed, not beforehand. They called for parties involved to make it clear cut on whether such rental deals require a bidding.

Pressure is on the police now, after the public prosecutors have claimed they could take no legal action against Sakulthorn because they had to wait for initiatives from the police, who apparently had promised them more investigation. But trouble could go to the upper police echelon because some senior police officials had overseen the land fraud investigation leading to the conviction of the two suspects.

Facing more pressure are probably Juangroongruangkits, who virtually control the Real Estate Development and who are wearing two hats. On the one hand, they have big businesses to take care of, which sometimes means muddied deals are tempting, if not unavoidable, especially in Thailand. On the other hand, they are walking a very tight rope, having to obey strict legal and moral business practices, because of the political image Thanathorn is projecting for himself.

This might be even more tumultuous than Thaksin’s “Servants’ Shares” scandal at the beginning of his premiership. That scandal involved something in a lot more distant past, while this case is a lot fresher, comes hot on the heels of the Red Bull controversy and can be related to a political star who advertises “transparency”, criticizes royal business management and promises to make Thailand a better place.

By Tulsathit Taptim


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