Environment ministry in grip of factional power struggle
It seemed the conflicts inside the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry were over when the Cabinet resolved on December 18 to appoint Manophat Huamuangkaew as the new director-general of the National Parks and Plant Conservation Department.Manophat replaced Damrong Pidet, who retired on October 30, after the position had been vacant for nearly three months. The job had remained unfilled until then because of political interference and infighting between the old and new power cliques in the ministry.
The old power clique is headed by Yongyuth Tiyapairat, a former Thai Rak Thai executive. It was earlier known that Yongyuth was allocated control over posts at the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry directly by the "big boss", former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Yongyuth tried to push Rernchai Prayoonwet, deputy director-general of the National Parks and Plant Conservation, to become director-general. However, the new power clique is headed by Natural Resources and Environment Minister Preecha Rengsomboonsuk, who successfully pushed Manophat to the powerful position. Manophat was another deputy director-general of the department.
During the fighting for the position, both sides considered it as battle of pride that each would make an all-out effort to win. Both sides had lobbied support from Thaksin, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and their sister, Yaowapha Wongsawat.
Yongyuth was under more pressure to try to win the fight because he had lost the first battle when he failed to unseat Preecha. Yongyuth failed to give Preecha's position to Wisarn Techathirwat, a former Chiang Rai MP and former Thai Rak Thai executive.
Now that Yongyuth has failed again after Preecha managed to win the Cabinet's backing for the appointment of Manophat, Preecha has completely freed himself from Yongyuth's control. Actually, Preecha was initially given the position by Yongyuth in the first place but now he has betrayed him.
Preecha has also managed to establish a direct link to Yingluck, so he now has full power over the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.
Earlier, Yongyuth had control over the ministry through Damrong, making Damrong more prominent and powerful than Preecha himself.
Earlier, fighting between Yongyuth and Preecha involved Damrong in a proxy war. In particular, Preecha disagreed with Damrong over the problems of encroachments on national parks by resort operators.
In the conflict, Preecha sought backing from Deputy Prime Minister and Science Minister Plodprasop Suraswadi, a former permanent secretary in the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.
Plodprasop subsequently alerted the prime minister to stop Damrong exercising his power as the director-general of the National Parks and Plant Conservation over the park-encroachment issue.
Now that Preecha has full authority, he has made moves to purge officials who were under Yongyuth's control.
As a result, it was not surprising to see Manophat rescind decisions of Damrong. For example, Manophat delayed the increase in entrance fees for 29 national parks and set up a committee to investigate spending by National Parks and Plant Conservation when Damrong headed the department.
It was speculated that Preecha would also take action against Boonchob Sutthamanaswong, director-general of the Forestry Department, who is known to be an aide to Yongyuth.
As part of the action, Preecha obtained an order from the prime minister to delay legal action against forest trespassers. Preecha also criticised senior executives of the Forestry Department over alleged lobbying and bribery for positions in the ministry.
In the latest move, three deputy directors-general were transferred. One is Rernchai, who was removed as deputy director-general of the National Parks and Plant Conservation to become a deputy director-general of the Forestry Department.
The transfers inside the National Parks and Plant Conservation prompted Damrong to cry foul, saying: "The transfers were badly made. I don't understand why Manophat made officials who face disciplinary probes become heads of national parks.
"It was sad that Rernchai was made a deputy forestry director-general. It was like a demotion because Rernchai once held the position. The transfers showed that National Parks and Plant Conservation would no longer focus on crackdowns against businessmen who encroached on parks."
The series of unfortunate events in the ministry infuriated Yongyuth. "Since I have not got what I asked for, it is useless to talk to them," he complained to his aides.
It was reported that Yongyuth turned to join forces with Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan to set up a faction of "broken-hearted" Pheu Thai members. This faction decided to serve only the big boss. Anyway, no one should overlook this new faction, which is trying to regain its power and prominence in the party.