Govt denies tobacco deal
'No lobbying effort' to drop PMTL charge
The government insists it never interfered with state agencies to favour Philip Morris (Thailand) Ltd (PMTL) by lobbying public prosecutors not to press a new charge against the company.
On the fourth day of the no-confidence debate, the opposition raised the dispute between Thai agencies and tobacco company Philip Morris to grill the government.
Saranwuth Sarankate, a Pheu Thai Party MP for Uttaradit, accused Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai of being involved in efforts to help the company. He said Mr Wissanu called a meeting of agencies including the Office of the Attorney-General (OAG) and asked them to hold talks with the company to solve the dispute, which led to the amendment of Section 27 of the customs law and the reduction of the fine slapped on the company in a tax evasion case.
Mr Wissanu denied the allegations, saying the meeting in June 2015 was called because Gen Prayut was about to attend the UN General Assembly in the US and Asean Summit. The Office of the Prime Minister needed to prepare information to respond to possible questions about a dispute between Thailand and the Philippines in the World Trade Organisation over the Philip Morris price declaration scandal in which Thailand had lost the case three times.
Mr Wissanu said at the time the attorney-general decided to add another case against PMTL, separate from the case brought to the WTO, but the charge had yet to proceed. As a result, the meeting was needed to find out how the local case would affect the country's interests related to the WTO case. "I did not interfere or meddle with anything. This is the governing of the country,'' Mr Wissanu said. Regarding the Customs Act amendment, he said the idea had been floated since the Abhisit Vejjajiva government in 2011. The law had been on the books for 90 years and had been amended numerous times before the latest amended version was enforced in November, 2017, he said.
Gerald Margolis, managing director of PMTL, said on Thursday the opposition used old and inaccurate information when it mentioned the company during the censure debate. The company would protect its reputation if false information is used.
On Nov 29, 2019, the Criminal Court slapped a 1.2-billion-baht fine on PMTL, an importer of cigarettes and tobacco products, for evading taxes, though it dismissed a lawsuit against the company's seven local employees. In the lawsuit filed in January 2016, the OAG charged PMTL with evading taxes by under-declaring the value of cigarettes it imported from the Philippines from 2003 to 2006. Seven Thai employees of the firm were also included in the lawsuit.
According to the OAG, PMTL set the price of L&M cigarettes imported from the Philippines at 5.88 baht, while other importers declared that brand of cigarettes at 16.81 baht per packet. The firm also declared the cost, insurance and freight (CIF) rate on Marlboro from the Philippines at 7.76 baht per packet, far lower than the 27.46 baht reported by other importers. The OAG said such undervaluing of imports meant the company managed to avoid paying over 20 billion baht in taxes. The offence risks a fine worth four times the amount, or about 80 billion baht, the OAG said.
Meanwhile, the House was thrown into chaos after the opposition refused to wrap up its debate after its request for more debate time was denied by Deputy House Speaker Supachai Phosu. The House will vote on the no-confidence motion on Friday. Opposition MPs in the chamber shouted: "The government silenced the opposition!" to which Mr Supachai replied the opposition had already been given four days to censure the government.