Thai Court: Cabinet Member Can Serve Despite Australian Drug Conviction

Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Thai Court: Cabinet Member Can Serve Despite Australian Drug Conviction Thai Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao talks to reporters after a cabinet meeting in Bangkok, Sept. 10, 2019.

A Thai court ruled Wednesday that a senior government official can retain his cabinet post despite having served a prison sentence in Australia for heroin smuggling during the 1990s.

While Thai law bars drug offenders from holding public office, the overseas ruling is not binding in Thailand, the Constitutional Court said. Wednesday’s ruling in the case of Thammanat Prompao, the deputy minister for agriculture and cooperatives, drew swift condemnation from a political opposition leader and others who suggested that the court had allowed a convicted criminal to remain in the cabinet unpunished.

“Though the factual information convinced us that the accused [Thammanat] was convicted by New South Wales’ courts before he became a member of parliament, those were not Thai courts’ rulings. The accused is not prohibited by the Constitution of becoming a member of parliament nor serving in the ministry,” said Noppadon Theppitak, one of the nine-member judicial panel, in a statement on the court’s YouTube channel.

Thammanat, a member of the ruling bloc’s Palang Pracharat Party, was exposed in a 2019 report by the Sydney Morning Herald about his past arrest, when Australian police seized heroin valued at U.S. $4.2 million from a local hotel in 1993.

“According to the sovereignty principle and international laws, the ruling of a certain state is effective in that state. … Based on the integrity principle, the Constitution recognizes Thai courts’ rulings only, while other countries’ rulings have no legal binding unless there is a treaty to say otherwise,” Noppadon said.

The court noted that Thammanat had admitted that a court in New South Wales had convicted him, but the Thai judges did not give more details about the Australian case. It said the petitioner [the Thai parliament] and the foreign ministry could not obtain the notarized copies of the verdicts.

Thammanat did not attend the court hearing and did not respond to media requests for comment.

In September 2019, when the Sydney Morning Herald broke the story, Thammanat denied the allegation of his links to the drug trade. Opposition lawmakers then called on parliament to petition the court to determine his status.

The Australian media reported that a young soldier named Manat Bophlom had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import 3.2 kg (7 pounds) of heroin to Australia. The soldier was released from prison in April 1997 and deported to Thailand, where he changed his name to Thammanat.

“I never pleaded guilty. I have never done anything wrong,” Thammanat told reporters at that time.

He also challenged the report that he had spent four years behind bars, saying he was jailed for eight months.

The former army captain had previously described himself as the main “blood vessel” of advisers to former junta chief and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha because of his skills in binding coalition parties.

In the March 2019 general election – the first one after a 2014 coup that drove out Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and brought Prayuth to power – Thammanat won his race for a house seat. Four months later, he joined Prayuth’s cabinet.

Ruling ridiculed

On Wednesday, opposition leaders and human rights advocates criticized the court’s ruling.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a billionaire who was removed from office and saw his Future Forward Party dissolved over loans he made to the party in the run-up to the election, said he had concerns about the verdict.

“Is today’s ruling a new standard for the Thai society? It doesn’t matter whether they are criminals or prisoners from abroad, Thailand welcomes them to be ministers?” Thanathorn said on his Facebook page. “From now on, arms merchants and drug dealers can use their money to buy administrative posts in Thailand, can’t they?”

In a post on Facebook, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), also spoke out against the ruling.

“The bottom line is he is confirmed as a criminal and liar,” Robertson said of Thammanat. “No surprise at all that the Thai Constitutional Court found a work around to let him get off, just as everyone expected they would ...”

Robertson also posted comments from Sunai Phasuk, the Thai HRW researcher.

“This outrageous ruling nonetheless confirmed that he was sentenced [to prison] in Australia, which means his parliamentary testimony denying it is a lie,” Sunai said.

“With this shocking ruling by the Constitutional Court, now all sorts of criminals convicted in foreign courts could run for a public office in Thailand without a worry. Crimes committed outside of the motherland, no matter how serious they are, don’t count in the Thai realm of justice.”

The latest ruling also shows that Prayuth, a former army chief, has not taken steps to reform the country – a promise he made while overthrowing an elected government in 2014, an analyst told BenarNews.

“The court ruling reflects the Prayuth did not stage a coup and retain his power to reform and make the country better as he always says, but to protect his cronies’ interests,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the political science faculty at Ubon Ratchathani University.

“This ruling was not based on the principle of justice as it should be. The military took power, but failed to make government transparent and to fight corruption.”

Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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