BANGKOK — Accusations of corruption involving a park built to honor Thailand’s revered monarchy are threatening to damage an anti-graft drive by the ruling junta, which seized power last year vowing to clean up government and protect royal prestige.
The accusations, leveled by some Thai media and opposition groups, have transfixed a country anxious over the declining health of the long-reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87.
They come amid a widening police investigation into corruption involving two nationwide cycling events, also aimed at celebrating the royals, in which two suspects have died in military custody.
The army said on Friday an internal investigation found no graft in the construction of the 1 billion baht ($28 million) Rajabhakti Park, near the royal resort town of Hua Hin. The project was overseen by General Udomdej Sitabutr, a former army chief who is currently deputy defence minister.
“There isn’t any [corruption] at all. If there were any, I wouldn’t let this go, that’s all I’m going to tell you,” army chief General Teerachai Nakwanich told reporters, announcing the results of the military probe.
Teerachai was the latest in a succession of top junta leaders, including Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, to publicly stress there were no irregularities in the use of private donations raised for the construction of the park.
Yet allegations made by anti-junta groups of irregularities in the project’s funding persist in the Thai media, and a usually subdued opposition has seized a rare chance to score political points.
“Can people still trust the junta?” said Thanawut Wichaidit, a spokesman for the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or “red shirts,” which backed the government toppled by the military in 2014.
General Udomdej, who oversaw the project, told reporters on Nov. 10 that there was “an element of truth” to media and opposition allegations that an unnamed civilian had demanded bribes from the foundries that cast giant statues of past Thai kings for the park.
“But everything has died down now and it is all above board,” he said, without elaborating further.
On Tuesday, the defence ministry said it was setting up its own committee to investigate the construction of the park, which was opened by Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn in September. It will be headed by the permanent secretary for defence, General Preecha Chan-ocha, the prime minister’s brother.
Deaths in Custody
The accusations of kickbacks relating to the park project have been raised in the widespread coverage by Thai media of separate cases involving the organisation of two cycling events, “Bike for Mom” and “Bike for Dad,” aimed at honoring the king and queen.
Those events, in August and December this year, are seen as aiming to boost the image of Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, who does not enjoy the same level of popularity as his father.
Since October, seven people involved with the events, including two army officers, have been charged by the authorities with using the monarchy’s name for personal gain.
They were charged under Thailand’s strict lese majeste law that provides for sentences of up to 15 years per count for insulting the monarchy. Two have since died in custody.
Prakrom Warunprapa, a police major charged with falsely claiming close royal connections to raise funds, was found hanging by his shirt in his cell at a military base on Oct. 23, officials said.
A second suspect, celebrity-fortune teller Suriyan Sucharaitpalawong, who had been the main organiser of the August cycling event, died two weeks later in the same military prison. Better known as “Soothsayer Yong,” he succumbed to a blood infection, the corrections department said.
The deaths prompted the United Nations to urge the Thai government on Tuesday to stop using military facilities to detain civilians and to allow independent experts to investigate.
Police said the two men were represented by lawyers but did not provide details. Reuters has been unable to identify anyone who had represented them.
Both men were cremated within a day of their bodies being retrieved by relatives, contrary to the week-long funeral rites typical in Buddhist-majority Thailand.
Police said a committee had been set up to investigate the deaths and that the cremations were a private family matter.
The authorities have denied widespread speculation of foul play in both mainstream and social media, and issued a statement saying a third suspect, the soothsayer’s secretary Jirawong Wattanathewasin, was “alive and well” in military custody.
Police said they filed a case to the military prosecutor on Friday accusing Jirawong of lese majeste for falsely claiming to act on behalf of the monarchy for personal benefit.
A fourth suspect, army Colonel Kachachart Boondee, has fled abroad, say police. Kachachart has been charged with defaming royalty and abusing his authority for personal gain, according to documents filed against him by a unit of the Thai military.
Reuters was not able to establish if either man had appointed a lawyer.
Police issued warrants against three more suspects on Wednesday, also on charges under the lese majeste law.
The laying of lese majeste charges in the corruption cases arising from the cycling event fits with a pattern of increased use of the law in recent years, legal experts and human rights monitors say.
Since the army seized power in May 2014, Thai authorities have charged at least 54 people with lese majeste, and courts have handed down record jail sentences of up to 60 years.
It is also the second time in the past two years that lese majeste charges brought in corruption cases have touched the wider circle of the crown prince.
In 2014, Princess Srirasmi, the crown prince’s third wife, relinquished her royal title following the arrest of several of her relatives and six police officers on charges of extortion, operating gambling dens, accepting bribes and exploiting the name of monarchy for personal gain.
Among those arrested was Srirasmi’s uncle Pongpat Chayaphan, then the chief of Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau.
Pongpat has been sentenced to more than 36 years in jail for crimes including lese majeste, bribery and intimidation.
RANGOON — The leader of Burma’s main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi, acknowledged on Thursday to meeting with the grandson of former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe last week, without elaborating on the substance of the discussion.
During an interview with Radio Free Asia’s Burmese service on Thursday, Suu Kyi was asked to confirm whether she had met with “a family member of Snr-Gen Than Shwe,” to which the National League for Democracy (NLD) chairwoman replied in the affirmative.
Rumors of the meeting, which came less than a fortnight after the NLD won a resounding victory in the country’s general election, began circulating after Than Shwe’s grandson, Nay Shwe Thway Aung, wrote on Facebook on Nov. 19 that, “Tonight will be a historic one.” The post indicated he was in Naypyidaw.
On Thursday, Nay Shwe Thway Aung posted a thank you message on his Facebook sharing a Mizzima article that carried Suu Kyi’s comments to RFA.
“As Aunty [Suu Kyi] has confirmed the meeting, all I have to say is thanks,” he wrote.
Than Shwe, the former chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has kept a low profile since ostensibly exiting the political scene following Burma’s general election in 2010. Senior government officials have spoken with reverence of the former junta head but maintain he is no longer involved in politics.
With Suu Kyi not divulging the content of her discussion with Nay Shwe Thway Aung, observers can only speculate as to the political salience of the meeting as the country enters a lengthy transition period before a new government takes the reigns in March next year.
“It is very difficult to say whether their meeting was politically significant or not,” said Yan Myo Thein, a Rangoon-based political commentator.
“Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should release a statement about the meeting to [reduce] speculation.”
Asked about the content of the meeting on Thursday, Win Htein, an NLD central committee member, declined to comment.
Top Photo - (Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters) Aung San Suu Kyi during talks with Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann in Naypyidaw on Nov. 19.
RANGOON — The Maubin Township court in Irrawaddy Division rejected an appeal on Tuesday for defamation charges to be dropped against Chaw Sandi Tun, a 25-year-old woman facing trial for sharing a satirical Facebook post deemed insulting to the military.
Chaw Sandi Tun, also known as Chit Thami, was charged under Article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law for sharing a photo collage online which compared newly redesigned uniforms worn by Burmese military personnel to the apparel worn by renowned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In late October, the accused was notified of an additional charge brought against her under Article 500 of the Penal Code, a defamation clause, in addition to the existing charge.
Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law stipulates punishment of up to three years imprisonment while Article 500 of the Penal Code carries a penalty of up to two years jail.
At her fourth court appearance on Tuesday, the defendant’s lawyer Robert San Aung requested that the court throw out the charges as they were not filed by a complainant directly defamed. The appeal was rejected, with the court judging the defamation charge to broadly concern military personnel, not a particular individual, according to Robert San Aung.
The next court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 30.
Chaw Sandi Tun received a Bachelor of Technology from the Maubin Technological University and was a former member of the Maubin Students Union. She took part in the recent student protest movement against the controversial National Education Law and was involved in campaigning for the National League for Democracy until her arrest in October.
Her defamation case is one of several currently before the courts related to content shared on social media. One such case involves aid worker Patrick Khum Jaa Lee who has been jailed—with several requests for bail denied—since October over a Facebook post he disputes sharing.
Translated by Thet Ko Ko.
*Editor’s note: This article was updated to note that Chaw Sandi Tun appeared in court for the fourth time on Tuesday.
RANGOON — The Shwe Taung Group, a firm with extensive property and construction interests whose chairman was once accused of ties to the narcotics trade, has become the second local company to partner with US software giant Microsoft.
The licensing agreement, signed at a Wednesday morning ceremony in Rangoon’s Sedona Hotel, will give the firm access to a suite of Microsoft’s marquee business applications, along with regular security updates.
In a country where the use of pirated software and media is endemic, Microsoft Asia Pacific general manager Michelle Simmons characterized the licensing agreement as a commitment to good corporate governance, a theme echoed by Shwe Taung CEO Aung Zaw Naing on Wednesday.
“Responsible investment and sustainable development have always been at the core of Shwe Taung’s corporate culture,” he said. “This partnership with Microsoft reinforces our group’s continued commitment to strong corporate governance, adopting international business practices, and respecting international property rights.”
Founded in the 1990s, Shwe Taung has grown into one of the country’s largest conglomerates. Its subsidiaries have developed a number of prominent commercial and residential properties in Rangoon, including the Junction Square shopping mall in Lanmadaw and the recently opened Union Financial Center in Bohtahtaung. The firm also owns exclusive rights to sell BMW vehicles in Burma.
Aik Htun, the group’s founding chairman, was suspected by the US Treasury of involvement in Burma’s drug trade during his time as managing director of the now defunct Asia Wealth Bank.
According to a 2007 cable originating from the US Embassy in Rangoon, Aik Htun denied allegations of involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering in conversation with American officials, while admitting his business ventures had profited from his close personal ties with the previous military junta.
Aik Htun, who was present at the Sedona on Wednesday, declined to speak to The Irrawaddy, saying that he had recently stepped down from the helm of Shwe Taung to be replaced by his son and was not involved in the firm’s day-to-day activities.
Shwe Taung’s website, which claims the firm spent nearly US$21 million on corporate social responsibility projects, still listed Aik Htun as chairman on Wednesday afternoon.
In September, Microsoft signed a similar agreement with the KBZ Group, a conglomerate with interests across banking, aviation, infrastructure and mining. The agreement will see Microsoft provide cloud servers to subsidiary KBZ Bank for use across its branches.
Aung Ko Win, the founding chairman of KBZ, was the subject of European Union sanctions list for his ties to the military junta. He was removed shortly after the government of President Thein Sein took power in 2011.
RANGOON — The paltry electoral haul of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) got a little bit paltrier this week, with reversal of a race previously called in favor of the ruling party, which was instead awarded to the Ta’ang National Party.
Shan State No. 5 in the Union Parliament’s Upper House was called on Nov. 12 for Sai Hsar Lu, a USDP candidate for the constituency encompassing the townships of Kutkai, Muse and Namkham, but on Monday the state’s election subcommission announced that Nyi Sein of the Ta’ang National Party had bested the ruling party’s parliamentary hopeful by 199 votes.
U Pwint, the Shan State election subcommission chairman, told The Irrawaddy that the vote tally swung in favor of the ethnic Palaung (Ta’ang) party after ballots from six polling stations in Namkham Township were added to the total. U Pwint declined to comment on why the ballots went unaccounted for in the tabulations that led to the erroneous Nov. 12 declaration.
Despite loss of the seat, Shan State was one of the brighter spots on the map for the USDP in a Nov. 8 general election that otherwise saw the National League for Democracy (NLD) claim large majorities in most of the country, with Arakan and Shan states the two exceptions. In Shan State, the USDP won two seats in the Upper House, 15 seats in the Lower House and 33 contests in the regional legislature.
Nationwide, the USDP won 11 seats in the Upper chamber, 30 seats in the Lower and 76 contests in regional legislatures, including two ethnic affairs minister posts.
The NLD won a total 886 out of 1,150 seats in play on Nov. 8, boasting majorities of about 80 percent in both the Upper and Lower houses of the Union Parliament.
The TNP won two seats in the Upper House—Shan State Nos. 5 and 10—as well as three seats in the Lower House and seven in the regional legislature.
A full tally of Union Parliament races can be found here.
Top Photo - ( Reuters ) A voter fills up his ballot in his home during a door to door advance vote collection in Rangoon on Nov. 7.