Giant statues cast shadow over Thai military

The statues of Thai kings dwarf modern-day subjects. Source: ABC

The Thai military has opened a second investigation into allegations of graft surrounding seven huge statues, days after clearing itself of any misconduct.

The 14-metre statues of former Thai monarchs were built on military land in the seaside town of Hua Hin, 200 kilometres south of Bangkok.

The Rajabhakti Park statues were funded by donations from businesses and citizens, but organised by the army, which seized power in a coup last May.

Each statue reportedly cost around US$1.7 million and allegations have emerged of backhanders and inflated costs.

“If people were honest I believe it would be such a great project,” said ex-police commander Sereepisuth Temeeyaves, who is known for being outspoken on graft.

“But as it is, no one will want to donate money any more as there is corruption involved … I wouldn’t donate, you wouldn’t want to donate.”

The allegations centre on commissions demanded from several different foundries who built the brass statues, reportedly by an amulet trader who has since apparently fled to Hong Kong.

In addition, the army has been asked about the costs, with US$11,000 worth of offerings assigned to one palm tree and a seat at a fundraising Chinese banquet cost US$38,000, according to the Thai media.

The charges were dismissed after a weeklong in-house probe by the military.

“There is no corruption,” said army commander, General Theerachai Nakvanich.

“If there are people taking benefit from this project and we find out we will proceed without exception.”

However, many observers are not convinced by the audit.

An activist group called Resistant Citizens lodged a complaint with the police.

“The National Anti-Corruption Commission and Auditor General have done nothing because nobody filed a complaint,” Pansak Srithep said. “Now there is one, so please proceed,” Pansak said as he handed over the documents to police.

His son was shot dead during a 2010 military crackdown on protesters.

Thailand remains under military control after last May’s coup and freedom of expression has been severely curtailed.

The military announced a follow-up investigation, overseen by the brother of Thailand’s military ruler, General Prayut Chan-o-cha.

That is not the greater transparency many were hoping for.

“If you are honest, if you are not addicted to power, if you are doing your best, then let people investigate, you should not be afraid,” said former police chief Sereepisuth.

Two of the chief suspects, the amulet dealer and a soldier, have reportedly left Thailand and other senior figures implicated by allegations remain in positions of power.

The calls for action coming from the Thai media and public are getting louder but the military appears unwilling to relax its grip on freedom of expression.

The Thai military has been deepening its connections with the People’s Liberation Army and Chinese fighter jets have thundered above northeast Thailand.

For two weeks Thai and Chinese planes have been taking part in their first joint air force drill, culminating in a performance by Beijing’s acrobatic air team.

Royal Thai Air Force spokesman Group Captain Chanon Mungthanya said the Korat exercise was a valuable opportunity to interact with his Chinese counterparts.

“Our relationship will go up a level during this exercise,” he said.

Thailand has long been one of USA’s most loyal military allies in the region, especially during US President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia.

But the May 2014 coup, the second in a decade, and the junta’s crackdown on human rights has soured the partnership.

Puangthong Pawakapan, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said: “The junta is obviously much more comfortable with China because they speak the same language and commit the same practices: authoritarianism.”

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