BANGKOK: Thailand’s Prime Minister has pointed to an intensive investigation and has promised that no one will be protected as the government seeks answers. He also did not rule out a cabinet reshuffle at some point in the future. On Thursday, 24 Democrat MPs voted to support the government for now until official probes into the scandal are complete and the party concludes its review of its participation in the coalition government. This has now been called for by Democrat Party leader Jurin Laksanawisit who said such a review was in order as the party could no longer assist in rowing a boat carrying ‘thieves’.

An intensive investigation by police, government officials and the military into a scandal has been ordered over the suspected hoarding and profiteering of over 200 million face masks by a Chonburi based middleman. The rumpus has embroiled already controversial cabinet minister Captain Thamanat Prompow and a key aide who met the figure at the centre of the affair at a Marriott Hotel in Bangkok. 

Captain Thamanat Prompow has again found himself at the centre of controversy this week after an aide met a Chonburi businessman now being investigated for face mask hoarding and profiteering of Thai made face masks (inset). The Deputy Minister of Agriculture has denied any wrongdoing and rejected calls to resign. The leader of the Democrat Party and Minister of Commerce Jurin Laksanawisit (inset left) has called for a review of the party’s involvement in the government saying that it was time to stop helping to row a boat with ‘thieves’ aboard. The Prime Minister Paryauth Chan ocha (inset right) has ordered an intensive investigation into the claims by police, officials and the military. He said that no one would be protected.

24 MPs with Thailand’s oldest political party, the Democrat Party, met on Thursday and agreed, for now, not to move against the coalition government led by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan ocha.

It followed calls from leading members of the party which is critical to the government’s majority in parliament, to pull the plug following a scandal which is swirling this week around controversial Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives Captain Thamanat Prompow.

Minster last September resisted resignation calls over an Australian newspaper article which claimed he had been jailed for drug dealing

Mr Thamanat was in the spotlight last year in September when the Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald published an exclusive story claiming that he was a convicted drug dealer in Australia who had served 4 years of a 6-year sentence for importing drugs in 1993 under a former name.

The newspaper reported that the convicted Thai man, said to be the current minister, was held at a Sydney prison from April 1993 to April 1997.

Doggedly refused to resign 

Despite this, the minister doggedly refused to resign and denied categorically that he had ever been convicted in Australia or that he had spent 4 years in prison. 

He did, however, concede in a statement that he was held under protection on an informal basis by Australian authorities as part of his cooperation with police investigating criminality.

Political fixer threatened to sue his detractors

Captain Thamanat later threatened to sue his detractors and blamed the media for the publication of ‘old news’ and a plot to bring down Thailand’s government by targeting him. 

The cabinet minister is known to be a go-between and fixer who is heavily involved in the machinations of Thailand’s parliament to ensure that the Thai government can command a majority in the legislative chamber.

Scandal this week has already led to litigation

This week’s scandal has also led to litigation under Thailand’s draconian Computer Crime Act against a popular and well followed online reporter who uses a Facebook page to expose stories. The page published revelations about a Chonburi based trader who claimed to have amassed 200 million face masks which are in chronic short supply in Thailand despite boosted output by factories and government control orders.

Sornsuvee ‘Boy’ Pooraveenasawatchari was seen to have posted an invitation to buyers to buy face masks in bulk at ฿14 a piece on his Facebook page.

This was conditional on potential buyers showing that they had the appropriate funds or where Chinese buyers. The minimum order was 1 million face masks. 

A video clip also purported to show Mr Sornsuvee overseeing the loading of trucks with a product load on its way to China.

Minister confirms his aide met the alleged face mask profiteer but denied discussing trade in the items

The scandal broke this week when it emerged that a close aide of Captain Thamanat, Pittinant Rak-iad, had met with the businessman at the Marriott Hotel in the Pratunam area of Bangkok.

A photo of the two at the location was handed to police investigating the matter after Thamanat’s aide himself filed a police complaint relating to the matter.

A statement from Captain Thamanat confirmed the meeting but denied that Mr Pittinant had discussed the sale of face masks with Mr Sornsuvee, the alleged hoarder of the items.

Thamanat would support the prosecution of his aide if found to be dealing in the controlled product

Captain Thamanat added that if his associate was involved in any such dealings, he would support his prosecution under the current circumstances. 

Face masks have since the outbreak of the coronavirus epidemic, been classified legally as a controlled item by Thai authorities.

Businessman denies ever owning face masks

Police are understood to have interviewed Mr Sornsuvee on Monday evening in connection with the affair. He denies ever owning or trading in face masks at all.

Asked by police to explain the published posts on his now-closed Facebook page which as late as Monday morning invited buyers to bid for a minimum lot of 1 million face masks, he said it was all just a pretence to make him look good.

Guilty of just posting a clip on Facebook

‘I just wanted to show off I had found many sought-after masks since the product is in short supply. No one can find them. I found them but didn’t have the money to buy them, so I posted the clip on Facebook,’ he said.

He apologised to the Thai public for any misunderstanding. He said he had no idea who the owner of the face masks in the video was. When asked, he replied: ‘No-one. I’ve never seen them. I don’t know who the owner is. I know nothing.’

His lawyer explained his client’s position: ‘Khun Boy is an online trader. He did not have the products. He’s just a middleman and doesn’t stock anything.’

Calls for the minister to resign by MPs

The scandal has drawn calls from MPs for Captain Thamanat to resign from the government even from among the governing Palang Pracharat Party. 

Palang Pracharat MP Sira Jenjaka on Monday night called on him to go, in order to limit the damage to the ministry’s image.

Characteristically, Captain Thamanat has robustly declined to step down. He denied any links to the face masks and stated that he would clear his name. He said that he refused to become another ‘political victim’ of the media.

The minister added that he had removed Pittinant Rak-iad from his team and had ordered an internal investigation into his activities.

A rising chorus of calls for Thamanat to go

Democrat Party MPs including Panit Wikitset and deputy leader Nipit Intarasomba also added their voices to the clamour calling for Captain Thamanat to step down. 

The strongest political message and warning for the government came from the leader of the Democrat Party and Thai Minister of Commerce, Jurin Laksanawisit, who has confirmed that a review of the party’s participation in the current government will take place. 

The party leadership and some MPs are concerned with several controversies relating to the government apart from this latest scandal.

The Democrat Party is rife with factionalism since it jettisoned its former leader Abhisit Vejjajiva last year and took its place in the government coalition. 

The defection of six MPs in November led to a shock defeat for the government. It was a vote on a bill proposed to examine decrees issued by General Prayuth as prime minister, during the junta government from 2014 to 2019.

This week, Mr Jurin said that such a review was timely and that the party must stop helping to paddle a boat crewed by ‘thieves’.

PM indicated a cabinet reshuffle at some point 

On Thursday, the Thai prime minister did suggest that the time would come for a cabinet reshuffle but that time was not now.

‘I’m not letting anyone off the hook,’ General Prayuth emphasised. The PM said that a root and branch investigation into the production and transport of face masks in Thailand was underway. The enquiry was aimed at detecting any leakage in the production of the items or unusual shipments.

He said that the intensive probe, in addition to the criminal investigation in Chonburi, was being carried out by the police, officials of the Ministry of Commerce and the military. He was confident that they would get to the bottom of just what was going on.

24 Democrat MPs agreed to support the government pending the outcome of investigations and the party’s review of the coalition

Following Thursday’s meeting of the 24 Democrat MPs, the party’s chief whip indicated that the decision of the 24 MPs present was to support the party’s position in government for now until a formal review promised by the party leader takes place and determines a course of action. 

The group also indicated that they are awaiting the results of the urgent investigations now underway into the scandal.

Chief whip declined to comment on the damage done to the party’s reputation by being in power

In the meantime, the Chief Whip, Chinnaworn Boonyakiat, called for discipline and MP colleagues to follow the party’s rules and not to issue statements that may sow confusion and discord among the partners participating in the current government.

Mr Chinnaworn, asked by reporters if the party’s image had been sullied in the eye’s of the voting public, would only reply: ‘It would not be right to give any subjective opinion right now.’