Of the self-inflicted crises afflicting the young government of Prayuth Chan-o-cha, perhaps the most embarrassing is the bombshell one of his new cabinet ministers happens to be a convicted heroin trafficker – at least if you believe Australia’s oldest newspaper.
Prayuth for now is standing by Thammanat Prompao, who spent four years in an Australian prison prior to being named deputy agriculture minister two months ago, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. The retired general and former junta leader told reporters yesterday he would not discuss the issue. Of course, being Prayuth, he then proceeded to discuss it anyway.
“The investigation process is not done yet. We have to wait for the results. … For those who criticize the government, can’t you look back and see if the other governments have problems too? Every government has problems,” he told reporters, adding that they should “leave parliament problems to the parliament.”
Thammanat has dug his heels in after evidence emerged that he pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle 3.2 kilograms of “high-grade heroin” in 1993, when he was 27. That’s when the Herald said he went by Manat Bophlom, one of a number of past aliases. The paper said another man arrested all those years ago alongside “Manat” confirmed that it was Thammanat.
After admitting to having been prosecuted for a “minor offense” at his July swearing in ceremony, he’s kept to steadfast denials and threats to sue the Herald. Speaking to a gaggle of reporters yesterday, he said that he’s been targeted by a conspiracy.
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While Prime Minister Prayuth stands by the man described as a well-connected ally of his ruling coalition, the Herald is standing by its very detailed account of Thammanat’s past, which it says were taken directly from court records.
Reached for comment, Herald reporter Michael Ruffles said the court did not allow the records about Thammanat-Manat to be photographed or copied.
“So we were allowed access to read and take notes, which took a couple of weeks,” he wrote in reply to a message.
Thai law forbids someone convicted of drug-related offenses from sitting on the cabinet, but Prayuth’s longtime legal adviser found a novel rationale to dismiss that. Wissanu Krea-ngam said that convictions outside of Thailand don’t count.
The episode has proven yet another unforced error for Prayuth’s 2-month old government, but one easier for the public to grok than a misstated oath of office.
Also rooted in the July swearing-in ceremonies, Prayuth’s refusal to say he would defend the constitution – as required by the constitution and the spirit of such oaths – has also been an ongoing source of bad press.
Last month, he assembled his cabinet for a ritual in which they took turns reading messages from His Majesty the King, which was seen as an attempt to smooth over the issue, which has been taken up by the opposition to undermine the validity of Prayuth’s government.
Parliament will debate the issue next week on Sept. 18, but officials have been floating the idea that it may be conducted behind closed doors, which could be to avoid public airing of a sensitive topic such as the monarchy or deprive the scandal of oxygen.