By The Nation
Another domino has fallen. Former Pheu Thai Party leader Yongyuth Wichaidith has been found guilty in connection with the Alpine Golf Course controversy and given a two-year jail term. It’s the latest blow to the dominant party of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra after his sister Yingluck fled Thailand a few days ago amid a judicial crackdown on high-ranking officials implicated in the rice-pledging scandal. When the national divide is taken out of the equation, however, we wonder whether a chronic ill plaguing Thailand’s political system is being seriously dealt with.
Land grabs by people in power are a major source of political problems in this country. They led to the Democrat Party’s fall from power in the mid-1990s and sent Thaksin fleeing a guilty verdict into exile in 2008. These two cases and the Alpine issue are similar in terms of how political power led to greed and subsequent attempts to cover up crimes.
Thaksin’s implication in the Ratchadapisek land scandal, in which a property auctioned by the government was sold to his ex-wife despite clear legal prohibitions against such a transfer, was always seen by his supporters as a political matter, since the crime was relatively innocuous. The truth is, though, that, apart from his immense wealth, which should have precluded legally risky additions, land grabbing by influential people is no small matter. Moreover, a wealthy prime minister who didn’t need any more money was surely in the best position of all to help cure a long-standing political problem, not fallen prey to it.
The Alpine scandal had all the characteristics of political land-grabbing. Nuem Chamnarnchatsakda donated 924 rai to Wat Thammika Voraviharn in her 1969 will. The temple wanted cash instead and sold the land to a foundation in 1990 – despite legal restrictions against such a change of ownership. The contentious transfer took place when Snoh Thienthong was deputy Interior minister and in charge of the Land Department.
The new owner resold the land to a firm wishing to build the Alpine Golf Course there. Snoh’s wife and younger brother were key shareholders in that firm. The Shinawatra clan, whose political star was then rising, bought the golf course from Snoh for around Bt500 million. But the Council of State then rejected the temple’s land transfer, forcing the Land Department to try to annul the private ownership of the donated land. However, the department’s turnaround was neutralised when Yongyuth was serving as acting permanent secretary at the Interior Ministry.
On Tuesday he was jailed for two years, but will the verdict put an end to illegal land grabs involving powerful people? That would be reaching too far. The Alpine controversy involved other prominent people, and we have never seen any indication that politicians are serious about tackling the problem. The issue is easily politicised, as when it got the Democrats kicked out of power, but even then, it was only anti-government politicians who were making noise.
Action against illegal land grabs has so far served only political purposes. One can also view the action against Yongyuth as politically motivated, considering his status in Pheu Thai. This is despite the fact that it’s an issue that requires zero partisan politics.
There are worse political crimes, but even a small abuse of power can snowball into something much worse.