13 July 2024

Colourful MP Pareena Kraikupt has gone down in history as the first person to be indicted for “grave ethical offences” under the new anti-corruption law, for her alleged encroachment on state forest in Ratchaburi.

The indictment means Pareena is already suspended from Parliament. Last Thursday, the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders ordered her to stop performing her duties as an MP.

What are the charges?

The National Counter Corruption Commission (NACC) found Pareena guilty of gravely violating ethical standards. She has been indicted on two charges: pursuing a personal interest that conflicts with her public duty as an MP, and “committing an act that undermines the dignity of an MP pursuant to the ethical standards issued for judges and persons holding important posts”.

The charges relate to Pareena’s occupation of 711 rai of land in Ratchaburi, the political stronghold of the clan headed by her father, Tawee Kraikupt. The plots in question are part of state forest designated for landless farmers in 2011 under the government’s agricultural reform policy. Authorities estimate that her occupation of the plots has caused Bt36.22 million in damage to the state.

Following the guilty verdict issued by NACC, Pareena’s case is now with the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders.

‘Ethical standards’: A new weapon to fight corruption

The 2017 Constitution, which was passed during the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) era, introduced “ethical standards” as a new benchmark for political officeholders and tool to combat corruption.

The new anti-corruption law took effect in 2018 with tough punishment for politicians. Under the law, any politician found to have committed serious ethical offences can be barred from holding a political position forever.

How did she acquire the land plots?

Pareena’s father Tawee, a former deputy transport minister now in his 80s, was found to have operated a chicken farm on the plots from 2002 to 2003. Pareena then used the plots for raising livestock until 2019.

While Pareena paid some tax on the plots, she did not hold the land rights. Documents filed with the Livestock Development Department show she used the plots for farms between 2012 and 2019, after the area was designated for landless farmers.

In an indication that her land occupation might be irregular, the local administrative organisation stopped accepting maintenance taxes on the plots from Pareena in 2014.

The life and fights of government’s fiercest “guardian”

Ranking among the country’s most talked-about female MPs, former Miss Congeniality Pareena Kraikupt has received huge media coverage ever since she joined the Palang Pracharath Party. The coverage has not always been positive. Yet if the number of headlines is an indicator of her political strategy’s success, deserves to be called a champion.

Shooting herself in the foot

Pareena, a 45-year-old MP for the Palang Pracharath Party, is a political veteran. She had already served several terms as an MP before joining the ruling party. She was first elected in 2005 under the banner of Thai Rak Thai. She was re-elected as a Chart Thai Party MP in 2007 and then again as a lawmaker for Chartthai Pattana Party in 2011.

Outspoken and never afraid of controversy, Pareena had been living with land-encroachment allegations for a while before opposition figure Ruangkrai Leekitwattana finally lodged a formal complaint against her with the NACC on November 13, 2019.

Ruangkrai made the move just weeks after Pareena suggested the mother of opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Somporn, was illegally holding more than 500 rai in Ratchaburi. Somporn responded by insisting she had documents giving her rights to a big chunk of land in the province and offered to release any plots found not to legally belong to her.

Ruangkrai also investigated Pareena’s land in Ratchaburi himself, presenting evidence that suggested illegal activity.

On February 10 this year, the NACC concluded that Pareena was guilty of grave ethical violations.

What happens to her now?

When the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders accepted the case, Pareena was automatically suspended as an MP. The court will hold its first hearing on April 30. If it finally convicts her, she will lose her MP status, with her tenure terminated on March 25 when her case was first accepted. She will also be banished from politics for life.

The tougher anti-corruption law stipulates that a person convicted of grave ethical violations shall not be allowed to run for any political position, including MP, senator, or even official political adviser. The punishment may also include suspension of voting rights for 10 years.

However, if Pareena is not convicted by the court, she will be able to resume her MP duties.

What does Pareena have to say?

Pareena has pleaded for understanding, saying that she is not a legal expert and could not have known how the law applies to each type of land in detail. She believes many others may have unknowingly occupied land plots they were not legally entitled to use.

“There is no clear boundary for each plot,” Pareena said. “After this case ends, I will set up a centre to help others suffering similar land problems.”

More trouble to come

Pareena looks set to fall deeper into trouble over the Ratchaburi plots, after the NACC formally accused her of filing a false asset-declaration. If convicted, she faces up to six months in jail and/or a fine of Bt10,000, plus a lifetime ban on holding political positions.

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources and Environmental Crime Division has already pressed four charges against her: occupying forest reserve, violating forestry law, breaking the Land Code, and breaching the groundwater law. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in jail plus a fine of Bt2 million.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk