Foundries to 'whitewash' Rajabhakti

Foundries to 'whitewash' Rajabhakti

Analysis: Udomdej 'cushioned' from commissions backlash.

People visit Rajabhakti Park in Hua Hin district in Prachuap Khiri Khan on Sept 27, 2015. (Photo by Panumas Sanguanwong)
People visit Rajabhakti Park in Hua Hin district in Prachuap Khiri Khan on Sept 27, 2015. (Photo by Panumas Sanguanwong)

The foundry owners contracted to cast the statues of former kings at Rajabhakti Park will next week clarify the "commission fees" issue, an army source says.

Some believe the move is a bid to whitewash the scandal surrounding the one-billion-baht park project located on the premises of the army’s non-commissioned officer school in Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Hua Hin district.

This will also cushion Deputy Defence Minister Udomdej Sitabutr and the government from any backlash, the army source said.

The source said the owners of the six foundries agreed at yesterday’s meeting in Bangkok that they would meet the press next week to clarify the allegations of "commission fees". Army representatives also attended the meeting.

The source said the foundry owners are expected to show documents confirming their willingness to donate money to the project, as well as other files, including purchase orders for imported materials used in the casting of the statues, to show the construction was transparent.

The source said the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) is expected to be allowed to examine the project’s spending, and that this would put an end to the scandal.

According to the Central Investigation Bureau’s findings, an amulet trader allegedly demanded commissions from foundry operators for contracting them to build seven giant statues of Thai kings at the park. Police say the trader has now fled abroad.

Foundry operators reportedly told police the trader demanded 10-20% commissions for each statue contract, valued at more than 40 million baht each.

After the scandal emerged, Gen Udomdej, who chairs the Rajabhakti Park Foundation, admitted an amulet trader citing "people in authority" had demanded the commissions from the foundries.

He said he sent an army officer to ask the amulet trader to return the money to the foundry owners.

The trader did so, and an army officer later visited the foundries to return the money, but instead they "volunteered" to donate the money back to the army, another source previously said.

The park construction project was initiated by the army under the leadership of Gen Udomdej, who was army chief at the time.

Chaisit Trachutham, chairman of the State Audit Commission, said a report from the OAG shows the construction was financed by both state funds and public donations.

The state funds, worth 63.57 million baht, were drawn from the central budget.

The budget division under the Office of the Army Comptroller was responsible for allocating the 63-million-baht budget to the army’s post-engineer department to fund the construction.

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon yesterday said he had appointed deputy permanent secretary for defence Gen Chaicharn Changmongkol to head a Defence Ministry investigation into the Rajabhakti project.

The investigation will cover any suspected military officers and the investigators will forward cases with any possible irregularities to the National Anti-Corruption Commisison and the OAG, Gen Prawit said.

Gen Prawit did not comment on whether the probe would reach Gen Udomdej nor set a timeframe for the investigation.

He told reporters that he would not answer questions on the park project until the conclusion of the investigation.

"Today, I will talk about it for the last time, and I won’t answer any more questions about it. Wait for the probe’s results," he said.

Justice Minister Paiboon Koomchaya yesterday said that the three anti-graft agencies under the ministry — the NACC, the OAG and the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission — found that the Rajabhakti Park construction was partly funded by the state budget of 63.57 million baht.

Gen Paiboon said the state budget was spent on levelling land at the construction site, while the public donations were used to finance the construction of the park and its statues.

When army chief Theerachai Nakvanich last week said that the army’s inquiry panel found no corruption and that no state money was spent on it, Gen Paiboon noted that the army probe might have focused mainly on the construction work funded by public donations.

The Pheu Thai Party yesterday demanded Gen Udomdej’s resignation.

The party asserted that Gen Udomdej should take responsibility by quitting because construction costs were unusually high, there were reports of irregularities, and his close military aides are wanted on arrest warrants for corruption in the project.

Pheu Thai also called for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Gen Prawit to take responsibility because they had earlier denied the park was funded by the government’s budget.

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