6 June 2024

While Thais were being obsessed with something else, Praween Chanklai, aka Kamman Nok, made senior police officers strip almost naked “for fun” at one of his “parties”, fired celebratory shots into the sky, conducted allegedly-questionable business activities, listened proudly to “Happy Birthday to you” sung respectfully by senior bureaucrats and built up a suspected bribery payroll.

That was before the alleged arrogance led to a tragic and unbelievable incident early this month. That was before something hit the fan and shocked the entire nation. Last but not least, that was before stunned Thais realised that, very gross and obvious as they were, rural corruption and rampant bribery had been gravely underestimated. Everyone knew it was rotten, but nobody knew how rotten it actually was.

“Kamnan” is one of the lowest governing positions but it is also a word associated with great power and dark influences. It’s a title whose holders feature as the bad guys in numerous Thai movies and make people in certain areas squirm in real life. Kamnan Nok’s state salary was just around Bt15,000 per month but his assets were said to be in the billions.

As recent Thai charters sought to restrict business transactions of political office holders in the highest government in order to make corruption more difficult and conflicts of interests more glaring and condemnable, Kamnan Nok’s business empire grew inexorably. His construction dealings expanded far beyond Nakhon Pathom, building roads and bridges and laying down gigantic sewerage systems in many other provinces.

“He and his father were among the best politically-connected entrepreneurs in their field of work,” said a news report. Kamnan Nok’s father, Prayote Chanklai, was a former village headman in Nakhon Pathom and the young Chanklai duly followed the old man’s footsteps. But only one year after becoming a village headman, the kamnan of Tambon Takong passed away, so Praween ran for the vacant position. The rest is history.

Prayote founded the P. Raweekanok Construction Company. Praween later set up the P. Phatanarungrod Construction Company. According to the Department of Special Investigation (DSI), the two companies may have been involved with a great number of fishy biddings for government projects.

Praween was said to be an effective lobbyist, but as the construction empire grew, so was his clout. What started off as humble, albeit shrewd, lobbying morphed into cocky influences and it was the other people’s turn to show inferiority.

Since 2015, both companies have won bids for well over a thousand state projects valued at over Bt70 billion, a huge number of business victories. Scores of other companies involved in government biddings one way or another have been summoned for questioning related to Kamnan Nok’s business.

Politically, the Nakhon Pathom tragedy will send many scurrying for cover. In the last general election, constituency seats in Nakhon Pathom were split among Chart Thai Pattana, Move Forward, and Ruam Thai Sang Chart parties.

Move Forward has been forced to deny that Kamnan Nok is one of its members. The party had comfortably won the biggest number of popular votes in the province, yet it was one of its outspoken MPs who helped bring to national attention the issue of “Sticker Tribute”. The scandal had to do with truck stickers that appeared normal but in fact indicated how much bribes had been paid and how illegally-overweight a truck can be.

The before and aftermath of the “Sticker Tribute” scandal brought several Nakhon Pathom figures to the underground and legitimate tables. Highway police were involved and so were business people in the transport industry. It was initially thought that the officer slain at Kamnan Nok’s party met his doom because he rejected the host’s transfer request, but calls are growing for investigators to look at the dead man’s attitude toward overweight trucks.

Pol Maj Sivakorn Saibua of Highway Police Division 2 was killed in exceptional circumstances at Kamnan Nok’s dinner party, but circumstances that laid foundations for Kamnan Nok’s business empire were anything but exceptional. They are the ugly norm, in fact, in various rural areas. Nakhon Pathom was just the first volcano to erupt.

Pol Maj Sivakorn Saibua

In an interview with PPTV, a police officer described a situation that he found normal but many others may consider extremely worrisome. “Most of highway police in Nakhon Pathom have good ties with the family of Kamnan Nok,” the policeman said. “(The police) have been taken good care of, not just by Kamnan Nok, but ever since his father. I’m familiar with the family myself because the chief at my kiosk took me to see them.”

It’s a statement that tells a thousand more words. But such a statement doesn’t contain any secret. It only got drowned out over the years during the making of Kamnan Nok _ and most likely a lot more like him _ while the country’s attention was elsewhere.

Tulsathit Taptim