published : 25 Feb 2017 at 04:00
newspaper section: News
Many at Thammasat have not forgotten Boonchu's 'green card' scandal v The Sangha is stirring, which might not please a certain Buddhist sect v Lt Gen Apirat shows a deft touch with the political side of life, stamping him as a future leader
A matterof honour
To their less generous critics, politicians split communities wherever they go. Even in educational institutions.
Although most Thai politicians are noticeable by their absence from the public eye these days, there are some who have not rolled over and are prepared to voice their views on the government-sponsored reconciliation campaign which looks set to dominate the political agenda for the rest of the year.
Members of parties, big and small, have accepted an invitation to join unity forums set up to thrash out ways to piece the country back together after it was torn asunder by colour-coded conflicts.
The parties' responses to the unity overture have been mixed. But they share a common theme in their carefully worded comments on what they expect will be the outcome of the reconciliation efforts. After all, the military remains fully in charge of the country and the constitution rules governing politicians are unprecedented in their restrictions and clarity about what they can or cannot do.
Many politicians, including some who have no apparent active political role at this time, are mulling harder than ever whether to run in the next general election. They are being closely watched by analysts on the back of suspicions that they could be preparing to rejoin the political fray to gain exposure and re-engage with voters even before the poll gets under way.
This growing reality is shared by academics at Thammasat University who stand on either side of the fence about whether the university should honour Boonchu Trithong, the old Chart Thai Party's former deputy finance minister and former university affairs minister, by publishing a book of distinction in his name, in recognition of his contributions to their institute.
Mr Boonchu was a high-flying politician in his time and regarded as one of the movers and shakers in government.
His career in politics spanned decades, however it wasn't always a smooth ride for him. After the Constitutional Court ordered Chart Thai to be dissolved for electoral fraud many years ago, Mr Boonchu was among its executives who were banned from politics for five years. It was during this hiatus that he decided to pursue other interests, eventually turning his compass toward education.
He reportedly donated land to Thammasat's campus in Lampang, his native province, paid for the construction of the university library and provided scholarships to students.
On his 75th birthday this year, a group of lecturers planned to ask the university to have a book of honour published for Mr Boonchu for his contributions to the institution.
However it received a cold response from other lecturers and staff who have not forgotten the "green card" scandal of a bygone era. For people who remember his days in active politics, Mr Boonchu's image is associated with the scandal in which some politicians enjoyed the privilege of frequenting certain nightlife entertainment venues courtesy of "green card" passes issued by a generous Mr Boonchu.
Although analysts agree Mr Boonchu is way past the stage of thinking about re-entering politics, sceptical lecturers at Thammasat needed a lot of convincing to get their thoughts in order about the former minister.
In the end, it was decided that the book would be produced.
Mr Boonchu concedes the green card scandal has left a stain on his reputation, one which cannot be scrubbed off easily.
Beware the holy order
The Sangha Supreme Council (SSC) has emerged reinvigorated under the new supreme patriarch, and the monastic governing body is showing a readiness to spring into action to back state efforts to resolve the controversy surrounding Wat Phra Dhammakaya and its former abbot Phra Dhammajayo.
On Monday, His Holiness the Supreme Patriarch attended his first SSC meeting since his investiture, with the public paying particular attention as to how the council would react to the saga surrounding one of the country's richest temples.
The meeting took place as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha invoked Section 44 of the interim constitution to declare the temple a restricted zone to help with the search for the elusive former abbot who is wanted on arrest warrants regarding embezzlement charges and other matters.
During the meeting, members of the SSC expressed concern about the situation at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, said Phanom Sornsil, the director of the National Office of Buddhism (NOB).
Phra Phrommunee, who was appointed secretary to the Supreme Patriarch at the meeting, wasted no time in asking all monastic committees directly supervising Wat Phra Dhammakaya to meet and resolve the issue immediately.
Phra Phrommunee is also an SSC member, as well as an assistant abbot of Wat Rajabopit in Bangkok where the Supreme Patriarch is abbot.
Somdet Phra Buddha Chinnawong, an SSC member, the abbot of Wat Pichaya Yatikaram and chief of a monastic committee overseeing the Central Plains region, will lead concerned monastic governing committees to work with representatives from the Justice Ministry in solving the problem.
Mr Phanom said all monastic committees have been advised to tell monks that Wat Phra Dhammakaya is a restricted area and entering it is illegal.
He said the monastic circle will work with state authorities in resolving the issue but noted the Supreme Patriarch himself has given no specific instructions regarding the Wat Phra Dhammakaya situation.
The NOB was also asked by the DSI to send officials to Wat Phra Dhammakaya to check on the monks' identities.
This was needed to ensure that no "third parties" had disguised themselves as monks to cause a disturbance.
DSI officials, with support from the police and the military, entered the temple grounds on Feb 16 to search the 2,300-rai complex in Klong Luang district for Phra Dhammajayo after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha invoked Section 44.
Phra Dhammajayo is charged with laundering money and receiving stolen assets in connection with the multi-billion-baht embezzlement of Klongchan Credit Union Co-operative.
His temple's meditation centres in Loei, Nakhon Ratchasima and Phangnga provinces are also alleged to have encroached on forest reserves.
Many years ago, the SSC and the NOB were heavily criticised for not doing enough to handle a case in which Phra Dhammajayo was accused of violating the Buddhist monks' code of conduct.
The case was based on a letter, dated April 26, 1999, written by the late supreme patriarch Somdet Phra Nyanasamvara, which recommended Phra Dhammajayo be defrocked for allegedly violating the monks' code of conduct by putting assets -- including 1,500 rai of land that belonged to the temple -- in his name.
The letter was sent to the SSC. However, the council did not defrock the monk. Instead it ordered those concerned to force the monk to transfer the land to the temple.
But from now on, the SSC is expected to assume a more active role in handling the Dhammakaya issue, along with the state, according to sources close to the matter.
The SSC's upcoming meetings, which will be held on the 10th, 20th and 30th of each month, will be highly anticipated, according to the sources.
Army chief in the making?
Barely two months into the year and already tension is building on several fronts for the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) which needs a commander it can trust to help iron things out.
The NCPO and the armed forces, particularly the army, are one and the same. Naturally, when the going gets a little tough on the political road, the council looks to the army to to steer a course of action required for pacifying heated issues, which could potentially spiral out of control.
Within the army, one commander stands out from the crowd, who is known for his combat skills. However, a recent non-military assignment has shown another side that was rarely seen of him.
First Army Region commander Apirat Kongsompong, sporting a casual weekend shirt and jeans, arrived for talks with a group of anti-coal-fired power plant protesters outside Government House on Ratchadamnoen Avenue on Saturday.
It was clear as day that Lt Gen Apirat was playing the negotiator with the protesters and it is a role not many of the top brass is very accustomed to playing, according to observers.
By position, he is the top security operator for Bangkok, which justified his presence at the negotiation table. But some would have had their doubts over how much power of persuasion he could muster to coax the protesters, who had converged only hours before at the protest scene into packing up and going home.
Protests involving complex, long-standing and bitterly debatable disputes, including those involving power plant projects, are hard to deal with and yet easy to provoke widespread conflicts, according to political analysts.
The Saturday protesters were in trouble with the law for allegedly having failed to notify the authorities about their planned rally, as is required.
However, sending a military commander to convince protesters, who might well have been ready for a showdown with the government, to disband was first thought by analysts to be the wrong move.
But before the sun went down, the protest was over after the government agreed to review the environmental and health impact assessment for the project, a move the protesters hoped would reverse the authorities' decision to fuel the power plant in Krabi with dirty coal.
The five protest leaders were also released from detention without charge that afternoon.
Lt Gen Apirat said it was necessary to end the protest peacefully and quickly, citing an intelligence report of a third party and anti-government elements attempting to politicise the protest and whipping up an undercurrent for their own political benefit.
A military source said Lt Gen Apirat had assured the protesters they had his empathy. Some protesters have said he told them during the negotiations that if the government went back on its promise, he himself would pay for their trip back to Bangkok to stage another protest.
The fact that the protest was a brief one helped lift the pressure off the government and also thrust Lt Gen Apirat to prominence as a prospective candidate for the army's top post in the future, the source said.
Other major events in which he has taken responsibility for supervising security have also boosted his credentials. He is directly in charge of maintaining peace and order at Sanam Luang, packed with mourners paying their respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Also, troops under his command occupy the outer cordon around the embattled Wat Phra Dhammakaya.
The soldiers are on standby to back-up police and Department of Special Investigation officials who have been searching the temple for its elusive former abbot wanted on embezzlement and other charges.
Lt Gen Apirat's chances of becoming army chief appear bright, with mandatory retirement three years down the road, even though he made enemies after leading a raid on the Thaicom satellite station in Nonthaburi to take it back from red-shirt protesters in 2010.