Before his abrupt departure, Alpine was a lightning rod that could hurt more than the quiet yet enigmatic bureaucrat-turned-politician. The issue remains a ghost from the past that can still haunt Thaksin Shinawatra and Snoh Thienthong, but it isn’t just that. The controversy typifies all major ills of Thai politics, a scandal that has everything – greed amplified by political power, abuse of political power to satisfy the greed, and more abuse of political power to erase the first abuse of political power. Yongyuth was not a major loose-end, but he was a reminder of the elephant in the room. The longer he stayed in public view, the more “visible” the elephant became, that is.
Many people, here and abroad, are still asking why Thaksin’s Ratchadapisek land case is such a big deal, or why he cannot be “forgiven” a purported oversight that is a minor crime at best in some developed countries. The answer is, Ratchadapisek was not an oversight or an isolated case. It represents a mindset that is as responsible for Thailand’s political predicament as the 2006 military coup. The same mindset led to the downfall of a Democrat government in the mid-1990s, after plots of land earmarked for the poor ended up in the hands of rich politicians. And it’s this mindset that placed a golf course where a temple should have been.
Nuem Chamnarnchatsakda donated her 924 rai of land to the Thammika Voraviharn Temple in a 1969 will written two years before the elderly woman died. Thanks to the temple’s willingness to cash in on the land, Snoh, then deputy interior minister in charge of the Land Department, pulled a few strings to let the temple “transfer” the property to a foundation in 1990, despite a very strict law guarding against such change of ownership. The new owner sold it to a company which was to build the golf course. Among the firm’s stakeholders were Snoh’s wife and younger brother.
Political and legal trouble threatened to boil over about 10 years later, after Thaksin’s ex-wife Pojaman bought the golf course from Snoh for around Bt500 million. The Council of State finally renounced the temple’s land transfer to the foundation, leaving the Land Department with no choice but to try to annul the private ownership of the land.
This is where Yongyuth came in. In his capacity as acting permanent secretary of the Interior Ministry at the time (he was actually deputy permanent secretary then), he neutralised the Land Department’s moves. Despite some political uproar, his action dispersed legal obstacles and gave the golf club a semblance of legitimacy. Nuem’s land was “laundered”, no matter how temporary that would prove to be.
Luckily, Pheu Thai backed out at the last minute from its attempts to “launder” Yongyuth, because if the process of making a golf course out of temple land looked complicated, efforts to clear the man’s name were messy. His defenders cited a 2007 exoneration act, which, enacted on the auspicious occasion of His Majesty’s birthday, erased tainted disciplinary records of state officials and also some criminal records. Yongyuth’s guardians quoted the law despite the fact that it carries one key, unmistakable condition, which is that people benefiting from the exoneration must have received, wholly or partially, legal or disciplinary punishment.
What they used to make Yongyuth fit for the act was some kind of “retroactive” punishment. Disciplinary authorities, when they met just a few weeks ago, resolved to fire the Yongyuth of years ago (the Yongyuth who was deputy permanent secretary acting on the permanent secretary’s behalf) so that the Yongyuth of today would be “covered” by the exoneration act issued in 2007.
We have always been taught you can’t make law for individuals, and that laws with retroactive effect must help groups of people, like a tax amnesty for example. Botched attempts to save Yongyuth were presenting legal academia worldwide with an intriguing case study: Can we enact a law “for the future”, possibly to exonerate someone who is not guilty of anything today but who may invoke the law to exonerate himself when he is found guilty 10 years from now?
Another question is, can you fire someone who is no longer even in the position from which he is supposed to be fired? In Yongyuth’s case, retroactive firing may make sense, if it affects his pension and so on. But can the retroactive firing qualify him as someone who had been punished before the exoneration law came into effect?
Fortunately, Yongyuth’s decision to leave the Yingluck Cabinet has spared us all the headache. Glance at all the questions and you get a feeling that the Constitution Court alone might not have been enough to tackle the issue – we might have had to beg help from the scriptwriters of the “Back to the Future” trilogy.