By Pratch Rujivanarom
On August 30, Tawatchai Anukul, a former land official in Phuket and Phang-nga, was found hanged inside the detention room at the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) headquarters.
The preliminary autopsy result, indicated in a death certificate issued by the Police General Hospital, said Tawatchai died because of a ruptured liver and suffocation.
Emerging details about Tawatchai’s death and other information led to public speculation the man had been murdered.
According to the DSI, Tawatchai had many cases filed against him based on his work registering land deeds for more than 1,000 plots of public land in Phuket alone. The DSI got an arrest warrant issued for him based on charges he had granted the land deeds for plots in Sirinat Marine National Park.
Before he abandoned his post and tried to escape his accusers, he was the land official in Phang-nga’s Thai Muang district.
The DSI claimed that during that time, he allegedly committed one of his biggest crimes by issuing more than 500 illegal land deeds at Khao Na Yak Mountain, worth up to Bt10.5 billion.
National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) secretary-general Sansern Poljieak also revealed the NACC had probed five cases against Tawatchai. Investigations into three cases were already complete, placing blame on him. The other two cases were still under investigation.
Sansern said that during the probe, it was found Tawatchai was part of a major network of illegal land deeds registration. He allegedly worked in a team with other officials to issue the land deeds to nominees, normally ordinary citizens.
When the land deeds were ready, the nominees would sell the land to investors as a legal property transaction to develop it for tourist destinations and luxury seaside resorts.
“We cannot accurately calculate the profit generated from the overall crime, as the land price usually skyrockets when the land changes hands. [But] this is big crime network we are facing,” Sansern said.
The NACC black case number 47910128 on the illegal land deeds registration in Tambon Karon of Phuket’s Mueng district was seen as clear evidence that Tawatchai did not work alone.
Officials alleged there were three other land officers – Prajim Chanchuai, Supap Saksritawee, and Darunee Lukchan – involved in these cases. They allege the four suspects unlawfully placed land use certificates (Sor Kor 1) from one plot to register land deeds for another plot.
According to a report on illegal land deeds registration in Phuket by the Royal Thai Police’s Crime Suppression Division, issued in 2004, the division found a crime network of local politicians, businessmen and land officials worked together as two teams.
The first team was of land officials and businessmen who illegally registered the land and shared the profit. Meanwhile, the second team was of land officials and politicians who supported the operation and covered up the wrongdoing.
Interestingly, Sansern revealed that most of the disputed lands in these and similar cases were yet to be retrieved by the state.
Cheewapap Cheewatham, Royal Forest Department’s Phayak Prai unit commander and former Sirinat Marine National Park chief, confirmed that Tawatchai had been allegedly involved in many illegal registrations at Sirinat Marine National Park.
Cheewapap said he believed there were more illegal land deeds that Tawatchai had issued, but they were not yet revealed.
Authorities said an interesting aspect to the case was that a person was silenced before he could implicate the mastermind.
A former assistant to the Phuket Provincial Land Office chief Phongsathorn Hiranburana, was shot to death in 2003, allegedly while trying to disclose the criminal network. He had taken over Tawatchai’s position after Tawatchai had been moved and his killer was still at large.
Officials stressed this allegation was just one possible reason behind Tawatchai’s death and the official investigation was continuing.