Backlash as Red Bull heir let off the hook over fatal hit-and-run
The dropping of all legal proceedings against Red Bull heir Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya over a 2012 fatal hit-and-run incident has triggered a tide of public outrage against both his family business empire, the government – and the justice system.
Over the past eight years, the public has complained loudly over authorities’ failure to bring the only suspect – a member of Thailand’s third richest family – to justice. For many Thais, news that the case against jet-setter Vorayuth had been dropped only confirmed what they knew all along – that “jails are only for the poor”.
Outraged by Thailand’s “two-tier” justice, many have decided to take the matter into their own hands.
First, they are calling for a boycott of all products manufactured or distributed by the Yoovidhyas, and second, they will continue lashing out at the government until it comes up with a clear and convincing explanation on why the case against Vorayuth has been dropped.
In a move to minimise damages, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha said public prosecutors work independently, and has called on relevant authorities to come up with a clear explanation.
The hashtags “#SayNotoRedBull” and “#jailsarejustforthepoor” have been top trending ever since CNN broke the news on Thursday night that the Attorney-General had dropped the case against Vorayuth, and police were revoking his arrest warrants.
“I will stop buying all [Red Bull-associated] products. #SayNotoRedBull,” Bo Issarapong posted on Facebook, in a message echoed by many.
Kritsada Boonchai, director of the Local Development Institute, said on Facebook that since the poor were the ones suffering from distorted justice, he hoped they would show their power by boycotting products associated with the Yoovidhyas.
“It may not be fair to the family members who were not involved in the hit-and-run case. But to avoid blanket blame, families should reprimand their relatives,” Kritsada said.
Responding to mounting public anger, TCP Group – which owns famous brands including Red Bull, Puriku, Mansome, Red Bull, Ready, Som Plus, Sponsor – distanced itself from Vorayuth by stating he had never been a shareholder nor an employee of the group.
“TCP executives, shareholders and staff have never been involved in this legal case, which is a private matter of Vorayuth,” TCP’s statement on Saturday said.
Records show TCP Group is now controlled by the children of the late Red Bull founder Chaleo Yoovidhya and his second wife. Vorayuth’s father, Chalerm Yoovidhya, was born to Chaleo’s first wife and now owns a 51 per cent stake in Red Bull GmbH, a thriving firm headquartered in Austria. Last year, 7.5 billion cans of Red Bull were sold worldwide in over 171 countries.
Chalerm, Thailand’s third richest man, and his family have assets worth US$20.2 billion (Bt638.8 billion). Chalerm also owns Siam Winery, which is linked to famous brands like Spy. Vorayuth, now 38, is his youngest child.
Vorayuth was accused of driving the black Ferrari which smashed into the motorcycle of Pol Snr Sgt-Major Wichian Klanprasert, 48, in Bangkok’s Thonglor neighbourhood on September 3, 2012.
The car reportedly dragged Wichian’s body for more than 100 metres before heading back to the family’s mansion on Soi Sukhumvit 53.
A Thonglor Police Station inspector initially presented the family’s butler as the suspect.
The butler was subsequently charged with making false statements to the police after he was unable to provide details of the accident and had no wounds to match the impact. The inspector in question was transferred to an inactive post.
Bangkok’s chief of police then intervened and vowed to bring justice for Wichian.
“It is unacceptable that a cop died, and the culprit showed no responsibility. I am going to drag the real hit-and-run man to justice,” said Pol Lt-General Kamronwit Thoopkrachang as he led a large police team to the family’s mansion with an arrest warrant.
Vorayuth then surrendered to face charges related to Wichian’s death.
After negotiations, Vorayuth’s family reportedly paid Bt3 million in compensation to Wichian’s siblings.
Meanwhile Vorayuth was hit with a total of five charges: drunk driving, reckless driving causing damage to another person, reckless driving causing death of another person, failing to stop to aid the victim, and speeding.
The drunk driving charge was quickly dropped because police had not tested Vorayuth for alcohol at the time of the accident.
On May 3, 2013, public prosecutors resolved to indict Vorayuth on the four remaining charges. But the accused was never indicted after prosecutors agreed to repeated requests from Vorayuth’s lawyers to postpone meetings, meaning the case never got to court. On September 3, 2013, the statute of limitations for speeding and reckless driving causing damages expired.
In 2017, as public outrage mounted at Vorayuth’s seventh successful request to postpone indictment meetings, he finally took action. On April 25, he fled to Singapore on a private jet just two days before another scheduled meeting with public prosecutors.
Five months later, the statute of limitations on the charge of failing to stop and help the victim expired on September 3, 2017.
Amid public uproar, the Thai police sought Interpol’s help in arresting Vorayuth. However, photos of Vorayuth enjoying a life of luxury overseas fuelled growing complaints that no serious effort was being made to get him extradited.
Whenever questions arose on Vorayuth’s extradition, public prosecutors and police kept passing the buck and blaming each other.
Word then spread that Vorayuth’s legal team were trying to shift blame for the accident to Wichian, while producing witnesses to testify that Vorayuth’s car was not speeding when it hit the cop. Such claims, according to many sources, run contrary to the evidence that was gathered right after Wichian was killed.
Last week, to the dismay of the Thai public, police confirmed a CNN report that the Attorney-General had looked into Vorayuth’s case and decided not to pursue any charges, and the national police commissioner has not objected to the decision. The case has thus been closed.
“I am sad. This case makes it seem like you are innocent if you are rich#RedBull,” said one Thai netizen, echoing frustration that is flooding social media.
“RIP, Thai laws. Jails are just for the poor,” wrote another Twitter user.
And netizens did not fail to take notice that Chalerm, Vorayuth’s father, recently pledged Bt300 million in response to PM Prayut’s plea for the super-rich to help pull Thailand out of the COVID-19 crisis.
Sparking a blaze
However, many observers have warned that Vorayuth’s case may trigger a tsunami of criticism against the government and add fuel to ongoing anti-government protests.
Jatuporn Prompan, who leads the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, compared this to the illegal hunting trip in Thung Yai Naresuan national park in 1976, which brought thousands of students to the street to oust then-prime minister Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn.
The case was not just a drop of fuel but a whole tankful, Thammasat University’s former rector Professor Surapon Nitikraipot was quoted as saying by Isra News.
“The young generation’s protest against the government has already gained momentum, and this case will give it a big boost,” Surapon commented.
Opposition politicians such as Watana Muangsook of the Pheu Thai Party were also quick to highlight the case and urge people to stop tolerating blatant injustice.
“The only way for Prayut and his government to survive public outrage is to quickly clarify that it is not involved in the handling of Vorayuth’s case,” Surapon said, according to Isra News.
Thammasat University’s vice rector Asst Professor Parinya Thaewanarumitkul added his voice to demands that both the Office of Attorney-General (OAG) and the National Police should explain why they dropped the case against Vorayuth.
“If it offers no reasonable explanation, the OAG may face a public backlash,” Parinya warned.
In the latest development as of press time, Attorney-General Wongsakul Kittipromwong has ordered his deputy to launch a probe into the decision to drop the case against Vorayuth.
Some sources suggest that the decision was not made by the attorney-general, but that one of his deputies played a key role in letting Vorayuth off the hook.
By Thai PBS World’s General Desk