This month, the Senate faces a challenge as it votes on ethical probes against accused members of its own chamber. It is hoped that the Upper House will display the high ethical standards they demanded in selecting prime ministerial candidates. Yet, the senators' votes in two inquiry cases may still raise a few eyebrows.
Last Monday, a majority of the 250-seat Senate voted to issue a warning to Senator Thani Onlahiad over improper conduct in helping a former girlfriend get a job at a government agency. Only 33 senators voted against.
The warning here is the level of penalty recommended by the Senate's ethical committee, which conducted the probe against Sen Thani and found his conduct worthy of only a slap on the wrist. The inquiry was conducted in response to a petition lodged by ex-Democrat MP Watchara Phetthong. Mr Watchara accused the senator of abusing his position to secure Pol Cpl Kornsasi Buayaem, a 43-year-old official, a job with the Royal Thai Police and then a position in the Senate as an assistant, as well as a posting to the Internal Security Operations Command's Region 4 -- where she received a financial allowance even though she did not perform her duties as expected.
The second case occurred early this week. On Monday, the Senate voted to issue a warning to maverick Senator Kittisak Rattanavaraha for his "inappropriate" conduct at Wat Bang Klarn in Phichit province. Senator Kittisak was accused of acting like the mafia in mobilising around 20 men to block the new abbot from entering the temple at the start of the month.
The row over Wat Bang Klarn has been going on for years and split the community in two -- one side supports the abbot who was appointed to replace his deceased colleague. The other that the senator has allied with accused the new abbot of mishandling funds. The row turned ugly to the point where the abbot tried to press charges against the senator, and villagers held a protest to evict the senator from the temple premises.
The Senate is also looking at another ethical accusation against Sen Thani after the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) last week accused 15 people -- including the senator -- of mishandling the infamous 2012 hit-and-run case that resulted in the suspect, Red Bull scion Vorayuth "Boss" Yoovidhya, getting let off the hook. At that time, Sen Thani was the chair of the National Legislative Assembly's (NLA) committee on justice and police reform.
This committee received a complaint from the legal team of Mr Vorayuth in which they accepted new evidence that substantially reduced the estimated speed that the suspect's Ferrari was travelling at to under 80 kilometres per hour. Because of this new evidence, police and the prosecution withdrew many of their original stiffer charges.
The Senate now has a chance to prove its worth by conducting a fair and transparent probe into Sen Thani. Hopefully, the Senate that will exit parliament in May next year will not leave this case in a drawer.
Senate President Prof Pornpetch Wichitcholchai and many senators, such as Seree Suwanpanond, have publicly insisted the Upper House did not protect the two senators. They also claim the Upper House maintains high ethical standards and will not shield senators who do wrong. Nevertheless, one has to wonder whether, if all evidence points to guilt, the Upper House will follow through and do more than dish out a slap on the wrist. The Senate must back up its strong words with equally robust action.