Govt leaves Thamanat sore to fester
Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thamanat Prompow must have been a valuable asset of the government to justify both Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam coming to his defence over his criminal past in connection with a drug trafficking case in Australia about three decades ago and over his questionable educational background while other cabinet ministers keep their distance from the scandal.
The prime minister said last week he found Capt Thamanat's clarification in parliament in response to the opposition's question about the Australian drug case reasonably acceptable although others, myself included, thought it was just his side of the story which contradicts the story ran by the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper which dug into his criminal past.
In short, the SMH claimed the young Thamanat who then went by the name of Manat Bophlom and another Thai, Sorasat Tiemtad, were found guilty by the New South Wales District Court on March 31, 1994 of being knowingly concerned in the importation of a commercial quantity of heroin into Australia and sentenced to six years' jail, with four years' minimum and a two-year non-parole period. He actually served just four years and was freed from Parklea prison on April 14, 1997.
Capt Thamanat's latest version of the story told to parliament last week was that he did not plead guilty to the drug trafficking charge and was not sentenced to imprisonment. He claimed he was held in custody for eight months during a plea bargaining period and spent four years in state-sponsored accommodation as a witness.
So who to believe -- Capt Thamanat or the SMH?
It is not difficult to find out the truth if the Prayut government genuinely wants to settle the controversy once and for all by ordering the Foreign Ministry to instruct the Thai embassy in Australia to send someone to look into the NSW District Court's archives.
But it appears the government is reluctant to do just that and lets the controversy drag on for a while, hoping it will just fizzle out as time goes by.
However, the scandal will rage on if Capt Thamanat makes good on his threat to file about 100 defamation lawsuits against those he feels have tarnished his reputation. That is the price he will have to pay. Or he just lies low.
By comparison, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu's defence of Capt Thamanat over the latter's criminal past and questionable educational background, although legally correct, is a long way short of of ethical.
It also begs a big question about his low level of appreciation of such noble social values as honesty, decency and good governance.
The government's top legal expert claimed the Australian court's conviction on drug charges against Capt Thamanat as claimed by SMH is not binding in Thailand and so cannot be used to disqualify the embattled minister.
Regarding his questionable educational background, Mr Wissanu said it does not matter whether Capt Thamanat's supposed PhD degree from a university in California is genuine or fake, as the deputy minister's qualifications have met constitutional requirements because he has a diploma from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy which is equivalent to a Bachelor's degree.
In other worlds, the deputy prime minister has suggested cheating is irrelevant even if the PhD degree is proven to be a fake because Capt Thamanat's educational background has already met requirements.
Both the prime minister and Mr Wissanu appear to be practising the White Cat and Black Cat theory of the late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping who said: "It does not matter whether a cat is black or white so long it catches mice."
Capt Thamanat is not just a government fixer who oversees and handles the micro parties within the government. To borrow his own words, he is a monkey handler who, from time to time, has to feed the monkeys with bananas to keep them satisfied and tamed.
It is an unenviable job that most party members have despised, but Capt Thamarat has accepted the challenge and has proven his worth.
He also delivered to the Palang Pracharath Party several parliamentary seats in the northern region in the March 24 election.
But the scandal has turned Capt Thamanat into something like a lightning rod or a hot potato for the government.
Public trust and confidence in the government are at stake if the scandal rages on. Will the prime minister cut loose a rotten arm to save a life?
Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.
Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.