11 July 2024

Thailand’s fugitive former deputy interior minister Vatana Asavahame, who fled to Cambodia from a 10-year prison sentence on a corruption conviction 16 years ago, has quietly returned to Thailand after the expiry of the 15-year statute of limitations on the case.

It is not known when the veteran former politician actually re-entered Thailand, but he made his first public appearance on Saturday, when he attended a religious ceremony to bless the new home of Sunthorn Pansaengthong, former deputy agriculture minister.

Vatana claimed to the media during the ceremony that the “Asavahames” are still a family of politicians in Thailand and have not disappeared from the country.

He then voiced support for Sunthorn in the Provincial Administrative Organisation mayoral election in Samut Prakan at the end of this year.

The Klong Dan waste water treatment project has beendubbed Thailand’s “mother of corruption” case, which has cost the taxpayer about 23 billion baht. The facility, which is 90% complete, has never been used.

The project was approved during the Democrat-led government in 1995 and implemented by the Pollution Control Department.

It was plagued by massive corruption, leading to a change inthe location of the project site and a move of the pipeline network from above ground to underground. Construction costs, originally estimated at about 13.6 billion baht, ballooned to 23 billion.

The moving of the project, to Bang Bo district in Samut Prakan, was to occupy a 304 hectare plot, which had been bought cheaply from villagers by front companies and sold to Palm Beach Development Company linked to Vatana. It was then resold to another company, Klong Dan Marine and Fishery, before it ended up with the Pollution Control Department, which paid about one million baht per 0.16 hectares, earning those involved in the land deals a whopping profit.

Vatana, then science minister, Suwat Liptapallop and then natural resources and environment minister, Yingphan Manasikarn, were involved in the project. Yingphan has already passed away.

Vatana was sentenced to a prison term, without suspension, of 10 years in absentia by the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Police Officer Holders. Suwat was cleared of involvement in the corruption by the National Anti-Corruption Commission.