Missing the point of the park saga

Missing the point of the park saga

The heart of the matter in the Rajabhakti Park scandal is as large and clear as the giant statues that adorn it. It is only strange that all the military men seem to have missed the point.

Allegations that kickbacks were demanded during the construction of the majestic park built in honour of historic kings loom large, especially as the army ran the project.

The crux of the controversy is clear-cut. Some foundries contracted to cast the giant statues of past kings that make for the park's highlight claimed that kickbacks were demanded from them for the work.

Gen Udomdej Sitabutr, deputy defence minister and former army chief in charge of the project, admitted the allegation was true. An amulet trader did ask for commission money from some of the foundries. However, Gen Udomdej said he had "cleared up the problem". The commission money was returned and the foundries voluntarily donated it back into the park project.

The point is here. If the amulet businessman did ask for a commission, and Gen Udomdej was aware of it, why didn't he hold him into account at the time when he was still army chief and running the project?

According to news reports, the amulet businessman fled overseas after the scandal broke out, months after the alleged demand for kickbacks had taken place. Also, does corruption money stop being dirty when it's turned into a donation?

It's odd for the deputy defence minister and member of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to declare the kickbacks controversy has been "cleared" because the commission money was taken back and given away to the park project. It may be a quick and easy way to end the problem, but it is far from being a proper one.

If the commission money derived from a corrupt practice is considered illegal as our common sense would suggest, donating it into the project without a due process of investigation and accountability sounds like money laundering.

The alleged corrupt practice and the fact the money should not have been paid out at all were suddenly obliterated in the strong light of the park's honourable purposes.

Instead of addressing these two points, army chief Gen Theerachai Nakwanich last Friday declared the park's accounting was clean, and all incomes and expenses matched.

Gen Theerachai practically ordered the case closed. Corruption authorities need not look into the scandal as it is an army affair, he said. The media, he said, is in "no position" to look into the figures behind the saga.

As for the alleged demand for commission payments, the army chief said the question should be put to his predecessor Gen Udomdej himself.

But Gen Udomdej has spoken.

Presumably, it's his admission that an outside party demanded a commission, and how it was dealt with that was considered unclear, and led the army to launch the probe.

Yet what is the point of the army's probe if it fails to address that crucial issue?

It's not just the army that is skirting the issue when it comes to the Rajabhakti Park scandal.

The military government, which often emphasised the need to tackle corruption and approach it holistically, was suddenly reductionistic when asked about the corruption allegations.

Even though the accusation is centred around its deputy defence minister and member of the ruling NCPO, the government said it has nothing to do with it.

In an interview yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon once again seemed to have lost track of what is key to the scandal when he said it's not necessary for Gen Udomdej as chairman of the Rajabhakti Foundation to give further clarifications.

While Gen Prawit has no problems if the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) wants to pursue the case, he showed the same evasive conduct when asked about the commission payments and the amulet trader allegedly demanding them. The media will have to ask Gen Udomdej about it, he said.

So there we go. Gen Udomdej admitted there was an attempt at corruption, but the commission money was turned into donations and thus cleaned.

The army said the account was aboveboard. The government said it is none of its business. Gen Prawit said he knows no details, go ask Gen Udomdej. Gen Udomdej declared everything was clean. Round and round they go, and still missing what is most important.

Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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