23 May 2024

As it turns out, the opposition’s censure attack, much taunted for its long delay, came about two weeks too early. Imagine the no-confidence debate taking place now, with half of the time devoted to grilling Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao. He would have been a wreck.


He is not far off at the moment, though. The man has been forced to deny all connections with an apparent, massive hoarding scandal involving face masks. This has come only a few days after he survived the censure session with the Democrats reportedly having to vote among themselves on whether their party, a key member of the Prayut coalition, should give him a vote of confidence.


The Democrats were among those who frowned upon Thammanat’s name in Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s Cabinet list. They must have felt somewhat vindicated, as the deputy agriculture minister has undoubtedly become the biggest liability in the ministerial line-up.


Charges varied during the censure debate, but the majority of them are divisive. Thammanat is now embroiled in an issue that directly concerns public well-being at a time of grave and realistic dangers. If the Democrats had been asked before not to “row the boat with bandits on it”, such calls would have divided opinions and Prayut would have laughed them off. The exacts calls are getting resounding now, and Prayut is obviously both annoyed and angered by them.


Political analysts and observers had regarded Thammanat as a lightning rod. Others in the Prayut coalition apart from the Democrats did not like it when he was appointed to the Cabinet. The foreign media and activists mentioned his shady backgrounds long before a big news story even came from Australia. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he spent four years in a Sydney jail in the 1990s in connection with the trafficking of 3.2 kilograms of heroin into Australia. He was deported on his release, it was said.


In the wake of the Australian news report, House Speaker Chuan Leekpai was made awkward by a media question about Thammanat being stripped of a military rank when he (Chuan) was prime minister. For the opposition, he must be one of the first names on a censure list, although his past connections with the Pheu Thai Party might subdue some people and some issues.


But Thammanat was to Prayut what Newin Chidchob to Thaksin Shinawatra, someone Prayut can’t live with and yet someone he can’t live without. Thammanat is a shrewd power broker, who knew a lot about Pheu Thai’s strategies and logistics. He was said to be a reason why the pro-Prayut coalition won certain seats and edged past its rivals in the race to form a government.


One Democrat made an intriguing comment about Newin years ago: “You can’t help but like him, provided he’s on your side.” Thammanat is probably like that, which is underlined by the fact that he, like Newin, served Thaksin by doing dirty jobs and helping to solidify his party’s dominance in the northern parts of Thailand.


But Prayut had a major decision to make now. The prime minister’s popularity rating is on a decline, partly because of the normal anti-incumbent circumstances, partly because of the unabated ideological divide, and, last but not least, because of questionable figures in his Cabinet. Even ardent ideological supporters are saying they feel “tired” backing this Cabinet.


The way Prayut shaped up his Cabinet is unhealthily traditional. Controversial characters made their ways to high government posts because either Prayut had to return the favor or they are party executives who conventionally couldn’t miss out and who couldn’t afford to let less senior party members do a job that the latter group is probably more qualified for. Did Thammanat get into the Cabinet on merits or because Prayut succumbed to old political traditions?


Ironically perhaps, if Thammanat had to go in the next Cabinet reshuffle, it would probably be because of old-fashioned political expediency. Thailand’s democracy requires much advertisement, and, whether he is innocent or not, Thammanat is a bad poster boy in the Prayut Cabinet.


By Tulsathit Taptim