Why is Pheu Thai so worried?

Why is Pheu Thai so worried?

Pheu Thai is up in arms over Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's use of Section 44 to protect officials clearing the huge stockpile of ageing rice and investigating suspected graft in the party's pledging scheme from civil and criminal litigation and disciplinary action.

The party threw every accusation imaginable at the government -- persecution of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, violation of the rule of law, abuse of power, a licence for political assassination.

That is one side of the coin -- the Pheu Thai side of the story. But there's more to it than that. It seems the party's real concern is that they will be deprived of the right to take legal and disciplinary action against these officials later on, when they are back in the corridors of power.

Journalists who expose corruption involving crooked politicians and senior government officials, and their editors, are fully aware of the risks they take. For this reason most journalists and editors prefer to avoid it, for their own sake and their employer's.

The first risk is the threat of libel lawsuits, demands for tens of millions baht in compensation – a tactic of intimidation that has proven successful in taming many media outlets.

Television audiences and regular newspaper readers, if they are interested enough, will have noticed that investigative reports, especially about graft, are noticeable largely by their absence these days. This is not because corruption has gone away, but because most media outlets feel it is not worth the trouble of pursing the issue in earnest with all its attendant risks and retribution.

So it should not come as a total surprise that senior officials responsible for probing alleged corruption in the rice pledging scheme are worried and reluctant to take on the job willingly. They fear the threat of civil and criminal lawsuits and, in many ways more importantly, disciplinary punishment when the political winds change in the future.

Commerce permanent secretary Chutima Bunyapraphasara said some Foreign Trade Department officials had been sued for just doing their job, and this had discouraged many of them.

She said officials were most concerned about civil service disciplinary action, because that meant they would be suspended from work.

According to the government, the use of Section 44 of the interim constitution to give immunity to officials will help speed up examination of remaining rice stocks and the investigation process. There are still about 13 million tonnes of grain bought under the former government's rice pledging scheme left in some 1,800 warehouses across the country.

It will be an uphill task just to separate the good rice from the spoiled rice, let alone determine the total loss from the scheme and where the money went.

Pheu Thai has many smart lawyers and they will be able to skirt the immunity protection provided by Section 44. They can always take the cases to court, claiming that officials did their jobs dishonestly.

Corruption is a devil that sucks up a huge amount of taxpayers’ money that should be used for the development of the country and the betterment of the people. It's their money.

The rice pledging scheme was described by some critics as the "mother of all corruption cases" in Thailand. More than 800 billion baht was spent by the government of Ms Yingluck in just two years to buy up five rice crops. Many farmers did not benefit at all. The loss to the state has so far been estimated at a minimum of 500 billion baht.

So why is Pheu Thai so worried if the officials are protected, so they can do their job properly and quickly and find out the truth about this expensive disaster of a scheme – and especially about who benefitted?

Veera Prateepchaikul

Former Editor

Former Bangkok Post Editor, political commentator and a regular columnist at Post Publishing.

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