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Top stories of 2018

Top stories of 2018

THURSDAY, December 27, 2018
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Here is a wrap-up of The Nation's top 10 news reports over the past year.

Top stories of 2018

NACC absolution in watch scandal, a shot in the arm for Prawit

THE YEAR 2018 began with a hot scandal involving General Prawit Wongsuwan’s controversial collection of luxury wristwatches, which many said were way beyond the means of an Army general.
The controversy kicked off late last year and continued grabbing public attention through most of 2018. When Prawit appeared at a Cabinet meeting wearing a Bt3-million Richard Mille, netizens could not help but dig up other images of the general sporting other luxury watches that would have cost a small fortune. He was later estimated to have a grand collection of more than 20 such pieces valued at more than Bt20 million.
Amid public furore over the general’s alleged extravagance, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) was tasked with uncovering the truth. 
Prawit, meanwhile, claimed these watches belonged to a friend, now deceased, which only became perfect fodder for hilarious memes.
The NACC responded to the furore by saying it would take a couple of months to investigate the case, as the task of matching each watch’s serial number to its owner was a time-consuming task. 
Finally, after nearly a year, the NACC has accepted Prawit’s explanation – that the watches indeed belonged to a late friend – and declared yesterday that the general had not concealed any assets. 


Top stories of 2018
 Rapping on the country’s problems
THOUGH JUNTA chief General Prayut Chan-o-cha has dominated the music scene over the past four years, the rap song “Prathet Ku Me” (My Country’s Got…), released in October could be said to have topped the charts as it brought to light all the problems people have had with this regime. 
The rap number, produced by a group of artists called Rap against Dictatorship (RAD), spoke about the rampant hypocrisy and injustice lower and middle-class Thais suffer due to the country’s unjust political structure. The music video was set against dramatic images of the October 6, 1976 Thammasat University uprising, which also reflected the country’s deep-rooted political problems. 
The number, released on YouTube, has garnered nearly 50 million views so far. 
Though loved by millions, this song has also raised quite a controversy. Conservatives in the country have labelled RAD as unpatriotic and responded by producing pieces of art also entitled “Prathet Ku Me” showing the good side of Thailand. 
However, the immense popularity of the rap song did shake up the government a little, with many officials publicly saying they were disappointed that the young rappers did not use their creativity in a positive manner.
As for concern that the rappers may be invited for an “attitude adjustment” session, the group has so far managed to stay out of the military barracks. 

Top stories of 2018

Top stories of 2018

Sinking hits tourism industry hard
THE CAPSIZING of a double-decker cruise boat off the coast of Phuket on July 5, killing 47 Chinese tourists, has been dubbed as one of the worst tourist-related disasters to hit Thailand in years. 
The Phoenix, carrying 89 Chinese tourists and 12 crew, and Serenata, with 39 passengers and two crew members on board, capsized on the same day. However, unlike the Phoenix, everybody on board the Serenata was saved.
Shortly after the tragedy, which underscored concerns about safety, Thailand suffered another backlash when Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the disaster on Chinese tour operators, saying they did not respect local safety legislation.
Though calls in China to boycott Thailand were somewhat calmed down by the Thai Embassy in Beijing issuing a statement carrying Deputy PM Prawit’s apology and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha personally visiting the survivors, the tourism industry still took a hit. 
The number of Chinese tourists dropped by up to 20 per cent between August and October, prompting the government to roll out new incentives, including a waiver of visa-on-arrival fees from November to mid-January.
On December 18, police said experts from China and Germany who inspected the Phoenix agreed that the boat was substandard, which contributed to its sinking. 
So far, an official at the Phuket Marine Office has been charged with failing to exercise his duty, while several others face the charge of recklessness causing death, including boat captain Somjing Boontham, 50, and TC Blue Dream Co executive and boat owner Woralak Rerkchaikarn, 26.

Top stories of 2018

Top monks jailed in corruption scandal
THE LONG arm of the law reached some of Thailand’s most senior monks this year, after an investigation into a temple fund expanded significantly and implicated several high-ranking priests previously considered to be “untouchable”. 
The investigation, which began many years ago, at one point came close to being shut down as National Buddhism Office (NBO) chief Pongporn Parmsneh was removed from his post in early 2017. Reports suggested that some powerful figures wanted to ensure certain senior monks held on to their posts. 
Pongporn, however, fought the order fiercely and was reinstated. 
Under his leadership, the investigation gained momentum. In May, police backed the crackdown on corruption in temples by conducting unprecedented raids at three Bangkok-based royal monasteries and arresting senior monks. 
The move revealed that three members of the Sangha Supreme Council (SSC), the country’s highest body for religious affairs, were allegedly involved in the embezzlement of state-provided funds for temples. 
The SSC reacted by dismissing all the tarnished members – Phra Prommedhi, Phra Phromdilok and Phra Phromsitti. 
Phra Phromdilok and Phra Phromsitti, ordained in 1967 and 1976 respectively, ended up losing more than their posts in the SSC. Apart from losing respect among members of the public, they had to forfeit their post as the abbots of the Sam Phraya and Sa Ket temples. They were also stripped of their saffron robes when they had to be sent to jail pending investigation. Three former assistant abbots at Wat Sa Ket, namely Phra Wijitdhammaporn, Phra Srikunaporn, and Phra Khru Siriviharnkarn, also suffered the same fate. 
Phra Prommedhi – formerly the abbot of Samphanthawong Temple – is the only monk involved in the scandal who is still on the run. Latest reports suggest that he is in Germany where he has some solid connections to protect him. 
This scandal also reportedly involved several top civil servants, including former NBO directors Phanom Sornsilp and Nopparat Benjawatananan.

Top stories of 2018
‘Furious aunties’ win public sympathy
TWO SISTERS, caught on tape attacking a pickup parked in front of their house in Bangkok with an axe and a spade in February, shot to fame as the “furious aunties”. Initial public condemnation of their action quickly turned to sympathy when they told their story of how five illegal markets near their house, and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA)’s lack of response, had made their lives miserable for years. 
In May, the Central Administrative Court ordered the BMA to pay Bt1.47 million in compensation to the Saengyoktrakarn family and to clear all illegal markets from their neighbourhood, which is located inside the Seri Villa housing estate’s designated residential zone. Though the BMA said it was willing to remove the markets, it appealed the compensation ruling. 
In November, a Bangkok court sentenced Ratchanikorn Lertwasana, 37, the woman whose pickup blocked the gate, to a one-year suspended jail term and a Bt5,000 fine. The court ruled that she had violated traffic regulations by parking on a public road in a manner that blocked a building entrance, and violated a criminal code by annoying or causing trouble to other persons.
However, not all decisions were in favour of the sisters. The Central Administrative Court on December 4 dismissed the family’s lawsuit against the BMA and the Bangkok governor, in which they alleged that the defendants had amended the law in favour of the markets and other commercial buildings within the estate. 
The court ruled the city had applied legal and appropriate discretion and followed due process. 
Yet another court battle lies ahead as sisters, Maneerat Saengpattarachote, 61, and Rattanachat Saengyoktrakan, 57, are being sued for causing property damage to the pickup truck – for which a court session to interview witnesses was slated for March 7, 2019.

Top stories of 2018

One man’s courage exposes trophy hunting
EARLY THIS YEAR, Thai society was woken up to the fact that trophy hunting is still very prevalent in the country’s national forests. 
Premchai Karnasuta, president of Italian-Thai Development Plc, was apprehended on February 4 along with three companions in the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, after rangers searched his unauthorised camp and found carcasses and parts of wildlife, including the carcass of a skinned black leopard.
Premchai was charged with six offences, including playing a part in poaching “protected species” and poaching protected species in a “protected area”.
If found guilty, he could face four to five years in jail along with a fine of between Bt40,000 and Bt50,000.
The investigation has also expanded to other allegations, including attempted bribery to evade wildlife poaching charges, illegal possession of weapons and illegal possession of ivory – all of which Premchai has denied. 
The court began deliberating the case in December, with both sides taking turns to provide testimony. 
The case has raised public awareness about trophy hunting that is often indulged in by influential figures. It has also prompted members of the public to push for wrongdoers to be punished and for related law-enforcement authorities to be overhauled, including wildlife forensics, not to mention the cost of ecological damage.
Meanwhile, Wichien Chinnawong – who led park officials to make this high-profile arrest – was honoured by the United Nations, USAid, Interpol and the Freeland Foundation, and given a special commendation at the UNEP Annual Environmental Enforcement Awards in November. 
Wichien said the recognition has given him motivation to do more and thanked his admirers for seeing the importance of conservation work. 
“This award is meant for all Thung Yai people, not just me, because we have all devoted our lives to protecting the Thung Yai Naresuan Forest as best as we can,” Wichien said.

Top stories of 2018
Judiciary under fire over alleged encroachment
EARLY THIS YEAR, Chiang Mai residents noticed patches of cleared forest at the foot of Doi Suthep, a sacred landmark that has been proposed for World Heritage status along with the old city. 
From an outcry over small patches being cleared at the foot of the mountain, the issue has escalated, tarnishing one of Thailand’s most revered institutions – the court. 
The Office of the Judiciary had built a new office and residences for the Court of Appeals Region 5 and its officials at the foot of the mountain, claiming the 140-rai plot had been legally granted by the military and the Treasury Department a few years ago. 
Despite its claim of legitimacy, locals believe the properties are encroaching into natural waterways of the pristine forest, which should have been integrated with the Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. 
They also claim the structures – 45 houses plus nine low-rise condominiums and a court office – taint the spiritual value of the mountain, thus reducing the area’s chance of winning World Heritage status. 
The government appointed sub-panels to settle the issue with the residents, who jointly formed the Doi Suthep Forest Reclamation Network, and they agreed that the structures be demolished, leaving the site as a “no man’s land”. 
However, no properties have been demolished as the government claims there are no laws backing this measure. 
The court, after plunging into conflicts with the residents, decided to move the project to Chiang Rai. However, it has yet to give an answer as to what will be done with the structures in the area, prompting further criticism. 
Meanwhile, some representatives face defamation charges for trying to protect nature and maintaining their values.

Top stories of 2018
 Authorities give nature a chance to heal
HOLLYWOOD SUPERSTAR Leonardo Di Caprio, as the young traveller Richard, sits on the beach, embraced by the tranquillity of Maya Bay in a scene in the 2000 film, “The Beach”. In reality though, Thailand’s top tourist destination – Maya Bay in Had Nopparat Tara-Phi Phi National Park in Krabi province – has been suffering from over tourism, resulting in severe degradation of the environment and its ecosystems, including the coral reef.
This was what led the Department |of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation to make a clear-cut decision to close the bay indefinitely to allow |rehabilitation – an action that earned |the department praise internationally for deciding to chose nature over money. 
Many environmentalists, like noted marine ecologist Thon Thamrongnawasawas, said this action was a “bang” that would send ripples to other natural attractions that need healing. 
So far, Maya Bay has managed to make it. The authorities have realised the necessity to cap the number of visitors so nature is not |compromised. Thanks to these measures, some marine animals, such as black tip reef sharks, are finally returning to the waterfront. 
Due to this success, other places have followed suit – limiting visitor numbers or closing the door to tourists so nature can heal itself. This new park-management approach is taking the capacity of natural sites very seriously.

Top stories of 2018
Old lady hippo Mae Mali moves to her new home as Dusit Zoo shuts its doors
THE BELOVED DUSIT ZOO, known locally as Khao Din, said goodbye to Bangkok in September. 
The 80-year-old zoo, located in the city’s heart, was part of many people’s childhood memories, which is why thousands showed up in the final two months to capture a souvenir photo. The biggest attraction, of course, was the celebrated 52-year-old hippo – Mae Mali. 
As for the thousand or so residents of the zoo, the closure of their home marked the start of a new journey. In the largest relocation of animals in Thai history – more than 90 species were sent off to the Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Chon Buri, as well as zoos in Chiang Mai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Songkhla, Ubon Ratchathani and Khon Kaen Zoo. 
These animals will remain in their new homes until their permanent, more spacious habitat – being built on land gifted by His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn in Pathum Thani’s Thanyaburi district – is ready.
Mae Mali and her great grandson Tua Kheow, however, will live in Khao Kheow permanently with the rest of their family. 
The 118-rai Dusit Zoo was built in 1895 during the reign of King Rama V, but only officially opened to the public on March 13, 1938.

Top stories of 2018

A single person can make a big difference

AN UNLIKELY whistle-blower had a big impact on Thai society this year, as she has courageously brought to light large-scale corruption at the Social Development and Human Security Ministry.
When Panida Yotpanya first exposed irregularities at the Khon Kaen Protection Centre for the Destitute during her internship there in late 2017, she was just a 22-year-old student at Mahasarakham University’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. 
Her complaints about suspicious activities at the centre got her into trouble with many lecturers. Yet she refused to back down. 
Panida stood by her complaints about how officials at the centre suspiciously signed documents to claim reimbursements for funds that should have gone to the destitute. 
Thanks to her unwavering determination, her complaints finally reached the ears of the Office of Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) and Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha early this year. 
An investigation later revealed that several top officials were involved. On February 23, Prayut transferred many high-level officials at the Social Development and Human Security Ministry, including its then-permanent secretary Puttipat Lertchaowasit.
Two months later, the Cabinet approved 60-year-old Puttipat’s dismissal unless his name could be cleared. On June 12, the Anti-Money Laundering Office seized Puttipat’s assets, and a few weeks later, he committed suicide. 
Other suspects are being questioned to ensure wrongdoers do not escape the long arm of the law. 
This case shows that even a student trainee can make a big difference to society and even powerful giants can be brought down, if one has the courage to uphold justice and fight for the right values in society. 
Panida, who has already received several awards for her courage, is now an official at the PACC.