Lift veil on mask saga

Lift veil on mask saga

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha will do the public a great service if he reveals details of the probe into alleged irregularities that led to the transfer of commerce permanent secretary Wichai Phochanakij.

Mr Wichai was cleared of dereliction of duty. He was reinstated as director-general of the Department of Internal Trade in an order signed by the PM on Monday.

The reinstatement order simply said an investigation, conducted by the Commerce Ministry itself, into an allegation that Mr Wichai as the DIT chief had allowed the hoarding of face masks during the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak was unfounded.

It said since the distribution of face masks was an urgent matter that had to be carried out during a crisis, some mistakes were made but none so significant as to qualify as a breach of discipline.

The explanation appears too terse considering how high-profile and controversial Mr Wichai's case was.

The trade chief was transferred from the DIT to the Prime Minister's Office two months ago following public outrage over overpriced face masks and allegations that many profiteers somehow managed to stockpile millions of the much-needed items to sell.

As surgical masks became scarce and their prices soared, the DIT in early February gave an order that the export of face masks and related medical products required its permission.

The shortage continued. In early March, the department ordered all surgical mask producers in the country to send their products to the ministry to be distributed to health workers, retailers and the public. The department also designated surgical masks as controlled products, to be sold at no more than 2.50 baht per item.

The ministry's efforts were apparently futile. Its taking control of the distribution of face masks, giving quotas to and prioritising different groups of users, did not solve the shortage.

Even doctors and nurses had to come out and appeal for face mask donations from the public or improvise protective gear for themselves.

Worse, the DIT chief often insisted that there were adequate supplies despite the apparent shortage. His responses naturally incensed a distressed public.

Then a document dated March 11 appeared online that showed one million face masks were exported to Chicago. The ban on exports of face masks took effect in February. The document's authenticity could not be verified.

The DIT later filed a defamation complaint against Customs Department spokesman Chaiyut Khamkhun. The department accused the spokesman of falsely announcing that the DIT had authorised the export of 330 tonnes of face masks when the items were in short supply and declared controlled products.

The DIT said the announcement was not true as the exports included other products too, such as seat covers, shoelaces and aprons.

The series of scandals put the Prayut government under intense pressure. On March 15, the PM signed an order transferring Mr Wichai to pave the way for an investigation into the alleged hoarding and overpricing of face masks.

The PM's order reinstating the internal trade chief may have cleared Mr Wichai of any suspicion and eased social pressure but it has not extended any clarity to the public.

Questions remain as to what exactly happened during the shortage? What role did the DIT and Mr Wichai play in trying to solve it as the agency in charge? Only a full disclosure of the investigation will clear all doubt.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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