More turbulence, but junta on autopilot

ศาสตร์เกษตรดินปุ๋ย : ขอบคุณแหล่งข้อมูล : หนังสือพิมพ์ The Nation




Over the past few weeks, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has been mired in a series of controversies involving people close to him.

Two weeks ago, critics queried possible conflicts of interest involving his younger brother, General Preecha Chan-o-cha, after his nephew’s construction company won lucrative contracts from the Army, and Preecha’s wife stirred controversy by riding an Air Force plane to the opening ceremony of a publicly funded dyke named after her. Preecha has since announced his retirement as Defence Ministry permanent secretary.

Critics have asked whether the PM is applying the same standards in these cases as are being used to curb offences by his political opponents.

Yet another headache for Prayut came this week with news that a delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan had spent Bt20.9 million chartering a plane to attend an informal meeting in Hawaii.

The Defence Ministry scrambled to explain the size of the bill, claiming that the itemised details published by the Comptroller General’s Department were “average prices” and did not reflect the actual cost of the trip, which was lower.

Chartering a Thai Airways International Boeing 747 was necessary because there was no direct flight to Hawaii available, while using an Air Force plane would have meant extra time needed for refuelling. With a busy schedule, the defence minister needed to keep his trip as short as possible, said the Defence Ministry spokesman.

The explanation for the food bill of more than Bt15,000 per head was that Thai Airways charged the same rate for the 38-member delegation as they would for a Boeing 747 fully loaded with 416 passengers.

General Prawit added that the trip was for work, not pleasure.

The explanations failed to dispel widespread suspicion that Prawit and his entourage had indulged in the kind of lavish spending of taxpayers’ money by politicians that the junta had vowed to clamp down on.

The Hawaii forum was informal, with no deals or agreements on the table. In the past such meetings have drawn Thai delegations of fewer than 10 members. Suspicions rose further when the agencies involved refused to identify those on the plane with Prawit, citing reasons of security.

In contrast, Prime Minister Prayut led a much smaller delegation to the recent United Nations General Assembly in New York, an official meeting where much was achieved.

Questions are also being asked over whether the Prawit delegation needed to fly direct to Hawaii. If his group had been smaller, there would have been no need to charter a flight in the first place.

Prayut‘s Cabinet had earlier ordered government officials to book economy-class seats for their official trips, a move which earned widespread praise.

However, the case involving Prawit suggests that members of the government’s inner circle are exempt from the drive to save taxpayers’ money.

The storm looks set to blow over, judging from the stands being taken by Prayut and Prawit. The PM has said that those who remain dissatisfied with the official explanations may take the case to court. The defence minister said he had nothing further to add on the matter.

But the controversy adds to a growing current of public dissatisfaction and frustration against Prayutand the National Council for Peace and Order. Faith in their authority is being undermined by actions within the government, which could have serious repercussions for the road ahead.

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