Embattled Pichit resigns as PM's office minister
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Embattled Pichit resigns as PM's office minister

Bows to pressure from senators over prison sentence, but PM may still face legal trouble

PM's Office Minister Pichit Chuenban raises his fist as he arrives at Government House on Tuesday. He later resigned. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)
PM's Office Minister Pichit Chuenban raises his fist as he arrives at Government House on Tuesday. He later resigned. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

Prime Minister’s Office Minister Pichit Chuenban resigned on Tuesday in the face of mounting pressure from a group of senators seeking a Constitutional Court ruling on his suitability to serve as a cabinet minister.

The move was seen as an attempt to spare Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin possible legal hurdles associated with appointing him to the cabinet in a recent reshuffle despite his eligibility being in question.

However, it remains unclear whether the charter court will proceed with the petition submitted by a group of 40 caretaker senators, who have accused both Mr Pichit and the PM of breaching cabinet ministerial ethics.

The court is scheduled to meet on Thursday to decide whether to accept the senators’ petition.

Despite insisting on Tuesday morning he would not quit, Mr Pichit submitted his resignation letter later in the afternoon, intended for Mr Srettha, who was still in Italy on an official visit.

Mr Pichit denied being pressured to resign and declined to elaborate on why he suddenly reversed his decision to stay on.

Before he was given the cabinet post, Mr Pichit was an adviser to Mr Srettha. But long before that he was former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s lawyer in the “lunchbox cash” scandal, and served a prison sentence for attempting to bribe the Supreme Court. This led to questions about his eligibility to serve as a cabinet minister.

On June 25, 2008, the Supreme Court sentenced Pichit and two of his colleagues to six months in prison after they had tried to bribe Supreme Court officials by handing them a lunchbox with a paper bag containing 2 million baht in cash a fortnight earlier.

All three were representing Thaksin and his ex-wife Khunying Potjaman na Pombejra in the Ratchadaphisek land case, for which Thaksin was sentenced to two years in prison in 2008.

Earlier on Tuesday,  Mr Pichit described the senators’ move as a ploy aimed primarily at eliminating Mr Srettha. If it really was all about his alleged ineligibility to be a minister, the group should simply have filed a petition against him alone, said Mr Pichit.

According to Mr Pichit, ministerial ethics apply from when his appointment took effect, not retrospectively from when he was imprisoned, which meant he wasn’t ineligible.

He noted that the Secretariat of the Prime Minister, the Royal Thai Police, the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Legal Execution Department had all checked his qualifications and eligibility.

Although Mr Pichit’s resignation might result in his exclusion from the senators’ petition, a source familiar with the court’s affairs said the judges will have to discuss in more detail whether the entire petition, which also concerns Mr Srettha’s alleged violation of the constitution, will be rejected.

“This matter is fifty-fifty because the fact is Mr Srettha’s premiership still exists. The court will have to decide whether Mr Pichit’s resignation also offsets the past action [of the PM to appoint him],” said the source.

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