IN THE FACE of growing public pressure, the Defence Ministry has decided to set up a committee to look into the Rajabhakti Park scandal.
At the centre of the scandal is Deputy Defence Minister General Udomdej Sitabutr, who vacated the Army top post recently.
Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan has to date suggested that the investigation by the soon-to-be-established committee might not cover his deputy, while Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has called on the public to not attack the whole Army.
“The accused stands innocent until proven guilty,” Prayut said, adding that the public should listen to both the Army and Defence Ministry.
The Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand, meanwhile, urged the government to urgently engage relevant external organisations in the probe to ensure transparency.
The Resistant Citizen group lodged a complaint with police against those in charge of the Rajabhakti Park project yesterday, demanding that culprits be brought to justice.
Funded by about Bt1 billion in donations, the project has developed a grand park and erected huge statues of seven former Thai kings under the Army’s supervision. The Army had handled the project until the Rajabhakti Park Foundation, headed by Udomdej, was registered on September 16. Udomdej retired as Army chief at the end of September.
Rajabhakti Park is located on Army land in Prachuap Khiri Khan’s Hua Hin district.
“The defence minister has already instructed the permanent secretary for Defence, General Preecha Chan-o-cha, to set up a fact-finding committee,” Defence Ministry spokesman Maj General Kongcheep Tantrawanich said yesterday.
He said Prawit gave the order to ensure transparency and also to clear up any misunderstanding.
Kongcheep said the Defence Ministry would announce later who will chair the fact-finding committee.
Earlier this month, the Army launched a probe into the Rajabhakti Park project. However, public uproar over the affair has lingered even after Army chief General Theerachai Nakwanich said last Friday that the probe found no irregularities concerning the use of over Bt1 billion in public and corporate donations to the project.
Prawit said yesterday the panel set up by the Defence Ministry would investigate military officers, not civilians.
Asked if the probe would target Udomdej, Prawit said he did not think so.
While Udomdej has kept quiet lately, he admitted previously that demands for illicit kickbacks from foundries were detected during the implementation of the project. He quickly added that the problem had been solved – with the kickbacks “turned into donations”.
‘Palm trees at way over normal price’
Resistant Citizen alleged yesterday there were several grounds to believe the Rajabhakti Park project was mired in corruption.
“For example, available information shows the project has bought palm trees for its landscaping at Bt100,000 apiece, while the market price is only at Bt25,000,” this group said. It added that some palm-tree owners also said they gave trees to the park for free.
The group’s representatives yesterday lodged a complaint over the Rajabhakti Park project directly with Crime Suppression Division deputy chief Colonel Siam Boonsom.
The move apparently aims to nudge police into investigating the Army and some top government figures, after the police force had stood idle for some time.
“We hope that culprits will be brought to justice,” said Phansak Srithep, a Resistant Citizen member.
Siam accepted the complaint and said he would raise the issue with his supervisor.
In a related development, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) secretary general Sansern Poljieak said an agency team was now gathering information on the Rajabhakti Park scandal.
“I should get the report from the team before the end of this week. Then the NACC will consider the issue at its meeting next week,” he said. “We will have to determine whether the case falls into our jurisdictions.”
Pheu Thai Party urged the NACC as well as various authorities to investigate the project.
“Apparently, Army personnel have been involved and Army facilities apparently used in this project,” the party said.