Army must realise statue scandal is not going away

Army must realise statue scandal is not going away

Rajabhakti Park, featuring the majestic statues of seven former Thai kings, has become the hottest tourist attraction in Hua Hin besides Wat Huay Mongkol which features a giant statue of Luang Phor Thuad.

But do not dare to mention "kickbacks" or "commissions" in connection with the park because that is very unwelcome and has the effect of turning some top brass from Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. 

But -- like it or not -- the kickback scandal, particularly affecting the casting of the seven giant statues, will persist even as the army insists the case is closed and that no other government agency, especially the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Auditor-General's Office, should step in and mess with the army's internal affairs.   

The way the kickback scandal has been handled by the government and, later, the army, is at best amateurish and resembles the "shooting of messengers" as top brass try to distance themselves from the controversy.

At a press conference on Friday, the army announced the findings of an internal probe into alleged irregularities in the project. Commander-in-chief Theerachai Nakvanich blamed society as a whole for being gullible, for believing in whatever is reported by the media, and for not using their judgement.

The army chief said the park project was transparent. There was no corruption. He pointed out the income and expenditure accounts are balanced. However, he assured that if any army officers were found to be involved in corruption later on, they would be dealt with in accordance with the law. 

With dissatisfied reporters continuing to pester him, as they did with others before him, about the kickback allegations, Gen Theerachai referred them to his predecessor, Gen Udomdej Sitabutr, currently the deputy defence minister and chairman of the Rajabhakti Park Foundation.

It was Gen Udomdej who broke the news about the demands for kickbacks from the hapless owners of foundries contracted to cast the statues. These were allegedly made by an amulet trader whose current whereabouts are unknown.

During the press conference, the army chief questioned the media's agenda, asking whether they wanted all those involved in the park's alleged corruption to be executed.

As a matter of fact, the press conference did not go smoothly from the beginning as the army abruptly prohibited live TV broadcasts, without warning or notification.

This was a mistake on the part of the army as it should have been aware that live broadcasts are a daily staple of most TV stations. Another error was Gen Theerachai's "hands-off" warning to other government departments, namely the NACC and Office of the Auditor-General, not to interfere in the army's affairs. 

If he insists the project is transparent and above-board, yet the question of alleged kickbacks still lingers, why is the army afraid of the NACC or the OAG helping out and clearing the air once and for all?

United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship firebrand Jatuporn Promphan had a valid point when he commented on the army's findings.

If the project is transparent and the income and expenditure accounts match, why is the army refusing to disclose the details of these accounts, as they are not military secrets. 

After all, a mere matching of income and expenditure accounts is not proof of transparency, nor is it proof of corruption as most accountants and auditors will testify.

Suppose an agency received 900,000 baht and spent it all buying three palm trees at 300,000 baht apiece.

The accounts match and so everything is OK? Only when one digs deeper and finds the market price for each palm tree is 30,000 baht is it discovered that it is not OK?

Targeting the army chief, the red-shirt leader said he felt the general appeared to have a negative view of those people demanding the kickback issue be cleared up, painting them as the wrongdoers.  

The army may have wanted the case to be closed quickly and everybody to be happy with its findings, and no one should bother to dig it up again for whatever reason so the country can move on. But I doubt many will agree, especially as the army's press conference on Friday was such a letdown. 

Veera Prateepchaikul is former editor, Bangkok Post.

Veera Prateepchaikul

Former Editor

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

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