Palang Pracharath Party's (PPP) key figures shrugged off claims of gaining an unfair advantage over other parties Sunday, saying that people are free to decide what they believe in.
The remark was made at the party's first campaign meeting, where party leader to-be and Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana, along with secretary-general and Commerce Minister Sontirat Sontijirawong, and deputy party leader, Science and Technology Minister Suvit Maesincee, sat down to listen to a group of small business owners and farmers in Nakhon Pathom.
Palang Pracharath Party leader-cum-Industry Minister Uttama Savanayana (centre) and PPP-cabinet colleagues Suvit Maesincee, left, and Sontirat Sontijirawong are laughing off public and opposition charges of illegal campaigning because of their political immunity. (Photos by Chanat Katanyu)
Unswayed by public concerns over conflicts of interest as they plan to run in the next election while still holding cabinet positions, Mr Uttama said he does not pay much attention to critics of the party, and stressed that they came not as ministers but as candidates with genuine concerns over the farmers' problems.
"Everybody has the right to criticise but let society decide what is what," he said.
"I was invited to come listen to the group, so I came. It doesn't matter whether we came as ministers or in whichever role. We intend listening to every group," said Mr Uttama.
"How we will use the information [gathered today] is a matter of the future."
The politicians sat down for the discussion with local farmers, some of whom still referred to them as "ministers", prompting the MC to rectify the mistake, twice.
"They are not here as ministers, but as brothers who came to listen to our problems," said the MC.
About 180 farmers from Nakhon Pathom, Kanchanaburi, Ratchaburi, and Suphan Buri attended the event, which was held by the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC) to "improve their agricultural practices". One of the event's organisers said she was contacted by BAAC to host the event -- with an emphasis that the event should appear informal.
When asked to comment on the calls on the ministers to resign before stepping into politics, Mr Sontirat said that resignations are "unnecessary", before adding the party is open to collaborate with any parties whose ideals and policies are aligned with Palang Pracharath's.
The party was launched on Sept 29, but its registration has not been completed. At the party's launch, Mr Uttama announced his readiness to lead the party.
Besides the three, Prime Minister's Office Minister Kobsak Pootrakool also joined the party.
Mr Suvit said last week the ministers would resign from their posts once the Election Commission (EC) endorses Palang Pracharath as a party, or if the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) lifts its political ban entirely, or when the election decree is announced.
Many people who participated in Sunday's event though the three politicians came to the event in their capacity as ministers.
Mesinee Charnprasert, the owner of shrimp farm in Nakhon Pathom, said she was not aware that the event was organised by or involved Palang Pracharath Party.
She said that she did not care if the event was actually an election campaign, as long as the event benefits residents. Also, she said she came here because she thought it would benefit her, adding that she was not disappointed by the event.
"I think by doing this [coming to meet and listen to villagers] the politicians will get access to the electorate. These are people who feel that they are voiceless. As long as they can fix problems as they promised, it doesn't bother me whether it is an election campaign meeting or not," she said.
When asked whether she thinks Palang Pracharath had gained a head start in the election because its members are cabinet ministers, she said that fairness does not exist, and that although other parties are barred from engaging in political activities, they can still do so indirectly.
"I think each party has their own strategy, and everybody needs to do what they need to do. Other parties can beat around the bush as well if they want to do it," she said, adding that she already has a party she wants to vote for.
The three PPP leaders laughing in photo above held a 'non-political' meeting with farmers from Nakhon Pathom, Kanchanaburi, Ratchaburi and Suphan Buri.
Earlier on Tuesday, Mr Uttama, Mr Sontirat and Mr Kobsak, visited Klong Lat Mayom floating market in Bangkok 's Taling Chan district, where civic groups from across the country organised a brainstorming event to promote agri-tourism.
The Pheu Thai Party had earlier questioned whether the meetings of these ministers, as well as campaigns by those vying to lead the Democrat Party constitute a breach of the NCPO's ban on political activities.
Pol Capt Chanin Noilek, chief of Department of Legal Affairs under the Office of the Election Commission, said it would be wrong if the ministers use state resources or their office time to talk about the party or its policies.
Yuttaporn Issarachai, a political science lecturer at Sukhothai Thammathirat University, agreed.
"People would also judge the legitimacy of politicians from their behaviour," he said.
"This will affect their acceptance and even after the elections, as people will still look back at their behaviour in the past. They might bring up [controversial or improper] behaviour for discussion in the future."
Mr Yuttaporn said currently there is a gap between what the old and newly-established parties are allowed to do, as parties registered after the Political Party Act took effect last year are subjected to more lenient restrictions.
EC secretary-general Jarungvith Phumma earlier said the NCPO may be asked this week to allow political parties to organise more activities in the run-up to the election.