11 July 2024

After surviving the recent censure debate with bruises, embattled Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao faces further controversy after his close aide was accused of colluding with a profiteer who allegedly hoarded millions of face masks.

The allegation has triggered widespread fury in social media at a time when demand for protective masks is high amid the growing coronavirus threat.

Thammanat quickly denied any connection with the alleged hoarder. He said his aide met the alleged profiteer only once recently and did not know him personally.

Public pressure to remove Thammanat from office has grown even higher after his latest controversy. Critics believe the Prayut government’s popularity will suffer if the minister is allowed to continue in his post.

Despite being battered by questions concerning his controversial past, Thammanat has so far been able to keep himself afloat in the sea of allegations.

He has defiantly defended his criminal actions, lashed back at his critics, and managed to retain his Cabinet seat in the process – at least for the time being.

His appointment to General Prayut Chan-o-cha’s Cabinet in July 2019 came as a shock to many; political observers had been expecting Thammanat’s less controversial younger brother, local Phayao politician Akkara Prompao, to be named a minister instead.

Other coalition politicians with dubious histories opted to have family members “take their place” as government ministers, under a quota system agreed among the coalition parties.

Thammanat’s brother, however, was a few months later appointed a member of the Marketing Organisation for Farmers, an agency under the deputy agriculture minister.

Thammanat, meanwhile, arrived in office after three decades of ups and downs. While serving as a junior Army officer in 1993, he was arrested in Australia and accused of smuggling heroin.

After serving several years in jail he returned to Thailand, where he was arrested again and imprisoned for three years in connection with the murder of a gay man.

Now 54, Thammanat is eager to explain away those criminal cases. In the Australian drug case, he was an innocent bystander convicted over a “misunderstanding”.

“I did not import, produce or deal heroin” while in Australia, he told media after his appointment to the Cabinet. “I was unfortunate to have been in the same place at the same time as some drug offenders.” The politician claimed that he was charged in 1993 with failing to report knowledge of drug dealing to police.

As for the murder case back home, Thammanat said the Criminal Court acquitted him after finding two other men guilty. He explained that the murder happened to take place at a building he owned.

Thammanat later became a protégé of an influential Army general, a relationship he blamed for his “mafia” image.

“Mafia refers to influential people who bully others; I am not that kind of person. I am rather someone who is generous and can be relied on,” he said.

There are also questions regarding his military rank and educational credentials.

Thammanat, now holding the rank of Army captain, was dismissed from military service twice in 1991 and 1993 but managed to get reinstated. He was stripped of his lieutenant stripes in 1998 but somehow bestowed the rank of captain in the same year.

Critics suspect his doctoral degree is bogus, though Thammanat maintains he did obtain the PhD but is unsure whether the university involved met the required standard. It is also alleged that his dissertation was plagiarised.

After his troubles with law, Thammanat also began developing connections with powerful military figures and politicians. He also began accumulating wealth from multiple businesses.

In 1999, Thammanat launched his political career with Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party, sticking with Thaksin’s camp even after the 2014 coup. He switched sides in 2018 to join the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party, which has since become the ruling coalition’s core partner.

Observers say he has developed a strong bond with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, regarded as the coalition “fixer” and a powerful figure in the ruling party. Thammanat’s appointment as deputy agriculture minister belies his importance to the party, as agriculture is a powerful and politically sensitive department.

He was also deployed to keep minor parties in line. Describing himself as a vital figure in the government, Thammanat boasted his duty was to ensure lesser coalition MPs toed the line by “offering bananas to those monkeys” – “bananas” signifying political favours or financial benefits. Soon after, he came under fierce attack from critics and opposition politicians, and appeared to retreat from frontline politics.

During the recent censure debate targeting Prime Minister Prayut and key Cabinet members, Thammanat’s past again came under scrutiny. He was forced to defend himself against a barrage of opposition barbs.

His responses to the accusations – including his claim that the heroin seized in Australia was in fact flour – were dismissed as “unsatisfactory” by observers and even some fellow coalition politicians.

The deputy agriculture minister obtained the lowest number of approval votes among the six Cabinet members targeted in the no-confidence debate. Some MPs from the coalition Democrat Party said they thought of voting against him but were forced to give him the nod by their party resolution.

For his part, Thammanat appears to be playing the role of lightning rod for Prayut’s embattled administration, serving as a frequent target of attacks by government critics while managing to distract attention from his political bosses.

Observers are now eager to see whether Thammanat can hold on to his deputy minister’s seat in the next Cabinet reshuffle. Although he is viewed as the government’s weakest link, particularly following his poor performance in the recent censure debate, no one can say with certainty that Thammanat will lose his ministerial seat.