Can legal troubles save Thanathorn from political ones?
Sometimes, ones explode their way out of a dark tunnel, whether they like it or not, or even intend it or not. Whatever Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is thinking about being charged under Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the legal situation may actually help him, like when the political tides turned when he lost his MP status and when his Future Forward Party was dissolved.
None of the three current “political” problems would land him in jail, and two of them even did not concern him directly. But all are massive, involving what he repeatedly preached publicly on social media, on rally stages or in Parliament when he was still an MP. Most politicians are virtually entitled to being hypocritical, but not Thanathorn, whose fame and reputation rely heavily on an image of being clean and being a fighter for social justice.
The problems represent a pitch-black tunnel. His younger brother is facing an accusation of trying to bribe some people at the Crown Property Bureau to get a mega business deal done. His mother is alleged to have illegally and unfairly grabbed plots of forest land she was not allowed to own, some of which was even earmarked for the poor. The politician himself is being asked why a yacht he co-owns was registered in the Cook Islands, an alleged haven for tax evaders, instead of Thailand.
The three are tough questions to answer, and then, coincidentally or not, Article 112 curiously comes in. Whether Thanathorn intended to “provoke” or not is up for debate, but in an unexpected, bewildering moment, he blasted the government’s coronavirus vaccine policy in a Facebook Live, suggesting it was designed to benefit a company linked to the royal family. He triggered a major outcry, and also legal action under a law he is known to oppose.
What ensued was predictable. The government suggested it was not having a choice while Thanathorn claimed he was yet another victim of the law. The Facebook Live controversy was immediately followed up by more claims of his, made at a press conference. This time, he said his younger brother, Sakulthorn Juangroongruangkit, had issued a statement explaining everything, and critics should read it because the controversy did not concern him directly. Thanathorn talked less on his mother’s acquisition of land in Ratchaburi but basically he said it was her personal matter. While declining to say whether what she allegedly did was right or wrong, he suggested her case could have been politically exploited.
On the yacht, he said it was a second-hand boat bought when it was already registered. Taxation regarding the purchase of a second-hand luxury boat will be an issue to pursue by his opponents, but the new information could buy him some time. On why he did not report it immediately after the yacht caught fire at a Thai port a few weeks ago, he said he did not want to fall into a trap set up by his political opponents, only suggesting it was an arson.
The three mega issues are different from the “media share” controversy that stripped him of his MP status and the “loan” issue that led to the Future Forward Party’s dissolution. Failing to clear all troublesome shares before registering to compete in an election and lending money to one’s own political party can be “honest mistakes”, but bribery, illegal land-grabbing and tax evasion are not. His supporters asked the authorities why they had to go after him over a number of shares in a little-known company and a loan to a fledging political party, but, currently, questions are being directed at him, not the accusers.
Yet again, Thai politics has shown time and again that ironies or hypocrisy matter little, especially in the context of national divide. Thaksin Shinawatra was super-rich, but he was also dubbed a champion of the poor, and his die-hard supporters are still regarding him as such. Corruption cases against him were seen by those followers as conspiracies. It has been no different so far when Thanathorn is concerned.
So, will action under Article 112 help turn it around for Thanathorn politically, although it will certainly add to his legal woes? Will the “hypocrite” label threatening his image give way to a bigger profile as a “victim”? Or will he just be a suspect in big trouble and politician under intense scrutiny?
The Facebook Live could have been just a sincere questioning of policies, an innocent move that had nothing to do with the controversies bombarding him. But if the Facebook Live was not a coincidence, Thanathorn can be either really smart or naïve. The other possibility is that he may be just a gambler trying to blow his way out of sticky troubles because a normal digging won’t do.
By Tulsathit Taptim