The ongoing controversy over alleged corruption at a military-sponsored park and other events to honor Thailand’s monarchy is becoming a big headache for the military government, as it struggles to uphold its own pledge of a ”clean” rule and instead cracks down on criticism.
IT was supposed to be a monument to honor the past: seven giant bronze statutes of seven past Thai kings - from the Sukhothai period (1238 - 1583) to the current ruling Chakri dynasty (since 1782) - were erected in a newly built park near the royal resort town of Hua Hin.
Rajabhakti Park is a project sponsored by the Thai military in another very public display of its loyalty to Thailand’s monarchy, of which it regards itself to be its ultimate protector amid growing concerns over the health of long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who turned 88 years old earlier this month.
But one year after the project's initial announcement and with the construction of the park pretty much completed, the Thai military junta is being besieged by allegations of corruption and has so far not been able to convincingly refute them.
The first rumors surfaced in early November as irregularities in the financing of the tall bronze statues were called into question. Specifically the high costs of reportedly 43 to 45.5 million Baht ($1.19 to $1.26 million) each, with payouts to middlemen, including an army colonel and several amulet traders, of roughly 10 percent "commission”called into question.
Right from the beginning of the case, the military government has denied any irregularities or involvement of any army officers, while deputy prime minister, defense minister and former army chief General Prawit Wongsuwan repeatedly insisted that this is ”not a government matter, it’s the army’s” - suddenly distinguishing the junta and the military as two separate, independent entities.
The royal park project was initiated and supervised by General Udomdej Sitabutr, army chief from October 2014 to September 2015 - exactly the same time it took for the completion of the park. An internal investigation in late November, led by his successor and current army chief General Teerachai Nakwanich (reportedly a protege of Gen. Prawit), declared ”there is no corruption” in the case and ”everything was transparent”, while not giving any details about the inquiry itself and at the same time telling off the media from further digging into the matter.
Just days after the military declared the case closed, Gen. Prawit announced the launch of a new investigation led by defense permanent-secretary General Preecha Chan-ocha - who also happens to be the brother of junta leader, prime minister and also former army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. The probe is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Another investigation by the Office of the Auditor General, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission found out that 63 million Baht ($1.7 million) of state budget was used in the project, contradicting an earlier statement by Gen. Prawit that the money came entirely from donations. Coincidentally, the chairman of the NACC was removed two weeks later by order of the military junta and replaced by Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit, a police general who happened to be secretary-general to Gen. Prawit shortly after the coup.
The Rajabhakti Park case is just one part of a wider purge in recent months, in which several high-ranking officials face lèse majesté charges for allegedly enriching themselves with either false claims to the royal family or abusing their connections to it. Some cases are tied to mass bike rallies to honor Queen Sirikit and King Bhumibol in August and December, respectively.
Two of the suspects, a police major and a prominent soothsayer, died in military custody on October 23 and November 6, respectively. Their bodies were hastily cremated within a day (not in accordance with Buddhist week-long funeral rituals), but authorities have ruled out foul play in both cases. The whereabouts of several other targeted officers is unknown. Some are rumored to have fled the country.
Whatever the inquiries will unearth (or not), the Thai military government is already practicing the worst kind of damage control by cracking down on its critics. Pro-democracy student activists and two red shirt leaders (a group supporting the toppled government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra), respectively, have attempted to visit the park, only to be intercepted and detained by authorities on the way there.
Thai officials have also arrested two men for sharing (not creating) infographics on the Rajabhakti Park corruption case on Facebook: a 25-year-old man taken into custody at a hospital while he was awaiting surgery, and a 27-year old factory worker, who has reportedly confessed. Both men, currently in military detention, are being charged for violating the Computer Crimes Act and for sedition, the latter carrying a sentence of 7 years.
The 27-year-old suspect is being additionally charged with lèse majesté, which alone can carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years per offense. It was revealed later that one of the offenses was sharing (again, not creating) contents on Facebook that mocked the king's dog. That in itself marks an even wider interpretation of Article 112 of the Criminal Code - which only mentions "the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent" - after previous rulings have expanded the law to past kings and even "attempted" insults. Punishments under the notorious lèse majesté law have been particularly heavy-handed since the military coup: In August, two suspects have been given record sentences of 30 and 28 years in jail, respectively.
Thai authorities have also announced its intentions to charge ”hundreds” of Facebook users with lèse majesté as well as for 'liking' offending content. Meanwhile, Gen. Prawit told reporters last week not to ask too much about the scandal, as "there's no point" to further press coverage of issue. He added, “Please stop mentioning this already. It damages confidence a lot. You’re Thais, why do this? The government is working for the country. Therefore, the media must help us out.”
The ongoing controversy over Rajabhakti Park could slowly become the biggest problem for the military junta so far, which has been only able to respond to criticism by stifling it. Not only does it face the tainting of its biggest showcase of loyalty to the monarchy - a nigh-endless source of pride for the army - but this is also a slap in the face to junta leader and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has pledged to crack down on corruption. An opaque investigation and more furious backlashes against critics could further undermine a government that is desperately seeking legitimacy that is looking increasingly elusive.