Asia-Pacific, Headlines

POLITICS-THAILAND: Family Squabble Becomes Corruption Row

Johanna Son

BANGKOK, Mar 27 2001 (IPS) - When Orachorn Kongsompong sued the mistress of her late husband, a former military chief who led a coup attempt in 1991, over his assets, little did she know it would balloon into a full-fledged controversy over corruption among the Thai elite.

But now, authorities, legislators, tax people and activists in Thailand are looking into the supposed assets of the late Gen Sunthorn Kongsompong — now estimated at up to 6 billion baht (136.4 million U.S. dollars) – to figure out if he amassed ill- gotten wealth during his lifetime.

Sunthorn, who died in 1999, successfully led a coup to oust the government of Chatichai Choonhavan and cited widespread corruption in it as the reason. A committee created by his military group, called the National Peacekeeping Council, had investigated a number of politicians and found some of them “unusually wealthy”.

Now, after his death, the same charges are being hurled against Sunthorn. Beyond just a family dispute over property, it has become a test case early on in the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — who has remained largely non-committal on the matter.

The government has time and again said it will clamp down against corruption. “If it refuses to do anything about this case, we’ll call it a liar,” Pibhop Dhongchai, head of the non- government group Campaign for Popular Democracy.

He said activists would launch a signature campaign for a probe into Sunthorn’s estate by agencies like the National Counter Corruption Commission — which also looked into charges that Thaksin put major assets in the name of his security guard, domestic help and driver in order to conceal ownership.

“If the government has the courage to investigate the assets of a former coup leader, it will establish an incredible precedent,” the English-language daily newspaper ‘The Nation’ said on Tuesday.

“And once that occurs, those with questionable assets built up during their time in office will have to start looking over their shoulders,” it added.

Groups in the Senate and House of Representatives are also working to file motions for an inquiry into Sunthorn’s wealth.

Senator Somkid Srisangkom, part of a panel that previously ordered the confiscation of the assets of another military officer, Sarit Thanarat, said the government must ensure also that taxes are paid on Sunthorn’s alleged assets.

Calls are also being made for a deeper review of laws and procedures for fighting corruption in the country, because at present there is a two-year limit on conducting ill-gotten wealth- related probes.

Activists want the law amended to allow the state to confiscate any ill-gotten assets even though the statute of limitations has expired.

If cases like Sunthorn’s cannot be addressed through the corruption law, Senator Thongbai Thongpao proposes that a new law be passed to allow recovery of all any-gotten assets – applied retroactively.

The controversy began from a lawsuit that Orachorn filed in the South Bangkok Civil Court against Ampaphan Thanetdesjsunthorn and 11 other people, claiming ownership over his assets and properties worth 3.9 billion baht (88.63 million dollars) and demanding their return.

Her sons filed a separate lawsuit seeking control of another 1.9 billion baht (43.2 million dollars).

These assets included land in the capital, Bangkok and other parts of Thailand, as well as income from the sale of a family flat in London.

But Ampaphan says Sunthorn’s assets are no more than 100 million baht, which critics say it still quite a sum for a military man to have. She also says most of the estate being sought in the lawsuits are actually profits from her business activities and her joint investments with Sunthorn.

To collect the 88.63 million dollars in wealth sought by Orachorn, “Gen Sunthorn would have had to save up to 100 million (baht) a year on average throughout his 37-year-career. What government official can do that?” asked the Thai-language daily ‘Khao Sod’.

Local media reports quoted associates of Sunthorn as saying he could not have had that much wealth because he led a modest lifestyle after his retirement from the military.

Another leader of the National Peacekeeping Council led by Sunthorn, Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon, said: “He didn’t eat shark’s fin or abalone. And he only drank cheap whisky.”

He added that some people close to Sunthorn might have exploited their positions to enrich themselves, added Suchinda, a former prime minister who was toppled in 1992.

The ‘Post’ also quoted a source as saying Sunthorn had been “broke” and depended on his mistresses, Ampaphan, for his daily expenses.

Meantime, critics say the next key step is to see what the Thaksin government does, and whether it digs deeper into corruption charges against the country’s military-led past and its leaders.

“This (silence by the government) might be because Mr Thaksin laid the foundations for his fortune when the National Peacekeeping Council led by Gen Sunthorn was in power,” ‘Khao Sod’ said in its editorial. “Or maybe it is because Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, deputy prime minister and defence minister, was a classmate of Gen Sunthorn.”

Thaksin, whose own corruption charges lodged against him may lead to his unseating despite a record-setting electoral win in January, had better tread carefully. So far, he said people ought to not to jump to conclusions in the Sunthorn case.

If Thaksin fails to act prudently on this case, his much- publicised vows against corruption “are nothing but a splash of mouthwash”, concluded ‘Khao Sod’.

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