Gen Preecha Chan-o-cha, brother of the prime minister, and his wife Ms Pongphan are under scrutiny over their spending and other reported excesses. (Bangkok Post file photo)
Last Sunday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha returned home from his US trip into the eye of storm.The recent controversies surrounding family members of his younger brother, defence permanent secretary Preecha Chan-o-cha, have diverted public attention from what he tried to achieve at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. With his anti-graft mandate, Gen Prayut has a tough choice to make or he could risk the legitimacy of his government.
Gen Preecha’s wife, Pongphan, and his son, Pathompol, have recently become the subject of public scrutiny.
Ms Pongphan has been criticised over the construction of a weir in Chiang Mai which is named after her. Pictures of her performing various functions with red-carpet receptions have circulated widely on both social media and the mainstream media.
Serving as president of the Wives Association of the Office of the Permanent Secretary for Defence, Ms Pongphan seems to have indulged herself in extravagant treatment. She has travelled to provincial areas on the ministry’s C-130 plane, trucks and cars with a large entourage of friends and military personnel. Her posters were plastered all over the place to welcome her presence.
As the association is funded by both donations and the Defence Ministry, she is accused of misusing state funds and official resources. Gen Preecha admitted the ministry paid 7,800 baht for the weir’s construction (which was just washed away by floods last week). Even though the weir was intended for a good cause, naming it after her can be interpreted as personal gain.
Gen Preecha and Ms Pongphan must clarify the sources of funding for those activities. To be fair, Ms Pongphan’s trips may not be the first ones. Similar customary activities were probably organised for the association’s other leading ladies. But saying “it was done in the past” or “everybody is doing it” should not be the excuses for Gen Preecha to evade scrutiny.
Two years ago, Gen Preecha failed to provide a clear explanation when he declared his assets upon his appointment as a member of the National Legislative Assembly. He did not clearly elaborate why some millions of baht as part of the funds of the 3rd Army Region, where he served as commander during 2013-2014, ended up in his wife’s personal bank account. He merely said the money was used to “facilitate” official functions.
His son has also put him in the spotlight. Isara News Agency recently reported that Contemporary Construction, partially owned by his son, won construction contacts from the 3rd Army Region from 2015-2016. The company’s registered address is in fact his official residence at the barracks in Phitsanulok. Gen Preecha defended his son, saying the procurement processes were made in accordance with the regulations. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Prawit Wongsuwon, also tried to dismiss the allegations, saying if Gen Preecha were not the premier’s brother, this would not make news.
At a point when the regime is trying to project itself as a graft buster, the scandals stand as thorns on its side. Rising to the top army post and then becoming the prime minister, Gen Prayut has not been tainted with corruption. His supporters have given him the green light to run the country and crush remnants of the political coalition that supported ousted prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. The crux of the allegations is “corruption-induced policies”.
The junta-sponsored constitution is also branded an anti-corruption manifesto. It limits the power of elected MPs, shifting the authority into the hands of appointed independent agencies and the judiciary. Under the charter, ministerial technocrats will have control over their ministers. With the notion that politicians merely rule to serve their own interests, platforms and agendas will no longer be dictated by representatives of the people any more.
With its anti-graft mandate, the regime is making a last bid to eliminate Ms Yingluck using its sweeping powers to issue an administrative order aiming to seize her assets for alleged “damages” incurred by the rice scheme. Such a move is being made even though the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office-Holders is yet to hand down a verdict on the case. Fifteen other cases have also been brought against Ms Yingluck and are currently under investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
In fact, voters who elected the government should be the ones who judge whether this and other policies have merit. If there is abuse of power and misuse of public funds, politicians and bureaucrats involved must be held accountable and brought to trial in a fair and transparent manner in accordance with the rule of law. No one should deny such principles. This means Ms Yingluck must be treated fairly and not fall victim to political foul play. And that is what she asked for in her latest message posted on her Facebook page. The same standard should apply to all.
Decadence exists beyond the sphere of elected politicians. Anyone can be seduced into abusing power for benefits. These include the top bureaucrats at departments and ministries, especially those which usually engage in large procurement, military top brass, the police and wives of the powers-that-be. They must all be held accountable.
The strong Thai patronage culture has overtaken the merit-based system. Those holding key positions in public office act as patrons who hand out favours and receive returns in financial or other forms. The perks are irresistible. They could be made to feel that they are the persons of the moment who can perform such a duty. Ms Pongphan is not the first who has been tempted by that feeling. Nor will she be the last.
Gen Prayut has a choice to make. He can tidy up his younger brother’s family mess by acting tough legally and holding them accountable. He should not underestimate the scandals, expecting them to fade away once Gen Preecha retires at the end of this month. Public memory lasts longer than that. And they could spark the downfall of his government and an unpleasant end to the Chan-o-cha family legacy.
Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.