Thai parks chief bumped to inactive post after arrest on corruption charges

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Thai parks chief bumped to inactive post after arrest on corruption charges Thai currency notes are laid out on a desk after being found in the office of Ratchada Suriyakul Na Ayutthaya, director-general of Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, following his arrest on bribery allegations in Bangkok, Dec. 27, 2022.
Handout/ Thailand’s Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission/AFP

The Thai prime minister has relegated the chief of the national parks service to a paid but inactive position after police found wads of cash totaling 5 million baht (U.S. $144,000) in his office, money allegedly accumulated through bribes solicited from subordinates to keep their jobs.

Ratchada Suriyakul Na Ayutthaya, the director-general for the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, was released on bail Wednesday after being charged with misconduct and demanding bribes, officials said.

He could be imprisoned for life or even face the death penalty, if convicted, according to legal experts.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha signed a document authorizing Ratchada’s immediate transfer to a post at Government House in Bangkok, pending an investigation.

“There was adequate evidence against him, therefore the prime minister signed a transfer order to the Government House away from his unit to facilitate the investigation, effective today,” Wissanu Krea-ngam, the deputy prime minister (for legal affairs), told reporters Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Thailand’s top parks and wildlife conservation official was taken into custody following a sting operation mounted by undercover police officers at his office. Piles of crisp bills in various baht denominations were later laid out on a desk there.

“Whether he would be fired or not, there must be clear investigation results. He has been 50 percent punished,” Wissanu said. 

As a result of the sting, Ratchada was found with envelopes containing cash that added up to 5 million baht, officials with the Thai police’s Anti-Corruption Division said.

Ratchada admitted to possessing the envelopes but said he did not know what was inside them, police said.

“Anyone who failed to pay him, or who did not pay him enough, stood a chance to be transferred [away from their current duty]. The ones who wanted to stay in the same position had to pay a quarter to a half million baht,” Pol. Maj. Gen. Charoenkiat Pankaew, the division chief, told reporters Tuesday.

Ratchada Suriyakul Na Ayutthaya (right), director-general of the Thai Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, receives an award from Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha at Government House in Bangkok, Nov. 30, 2022. [Courtesy of the Department of National Parks]

Allegations of deep-seated corruption have long riddled Thai government agencies. The arrest and charges against Ratchada mark the potential downfall of the top official whose department is the caretaker for dozens of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, which are home to tigers, elephants, marine life and other species. 

His department has jurisdiction over more than 63,500 square km (24,517 square miles) of land and coastal regions, or equal to more than one-eighth of Thailand’s surface area.

For the last fiscal year, the National Anti-Corruption Commission gave the department a high score of 88.44 on its “Integrity and Transparency Assessment.” Ratchada, 59, was appointed as director-general of the parks service in February 2022, according to a Thai report.

On Wednesday, Charoenkiat said investigators planned to summon more than 20 chief-level officials in the national parks department, whose names were labeled on the envelopes, for questioning on behalf of witnesses. 

An adult and infant elephant walk together after a dramatic rescue operation to recover the baby elephant after it fell into a hole, in Nakhon Nayok province, central Thailand, July 13, 2022. [Handout/Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation/AFP]

The sting operation stemmed from information that police received from plaintiffs, including a whistleblower within the department, Chaiwat Limlikhit-akson, the former chief officer at Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province. He himself is now standing trial in the alleged disappearance and presumed murder of Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, a Karen land rights activist.

Last week, according to Chaiwat, 21 directors of service offices within the parks department were summoned for a meeting at the agency’s headquarters. The timing of the meeting coincided with the department’s leadership paying out expenses as it prepared for the 2023 fiscal year. Bribes were to be paid out under the cover of such expenses, Chaiwat alleged.

“I felt pity for my junior colleagues … if they failed to keep their current jobs, they would have to move from Ubon Ratchathani [in the northeast] to Songkhla [in the south],” Chaiwat told reporters Tuesday. “Their families would be disintegrated.” 


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