Updated at 11:45 a.m. EST on 2019-09-11
A cabinet member in Thailand’s new government said Tuesday he had no intention to resign after an Australian newspaper published evidence showing that he had spent four years in prison in Sydney over a drug-smuggling conviction.
Thammanat Prompao, a member of the Palang Pracharat Party, was sworn-in as deputy agriculture minister in July. He had described himself during previous interviews as the main “blood vessel” of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha’s advisers due to his skills in binding coalition parties.
“I never pleaded guilty. I have never done anything wrong,” Thammanat told reporters as he responded to a Sydney Morning Herald report, which dug up evidence about his arrest in 1993 when police seized heroin worth US$4.2 million from a local hotel.
Days before he was sworn in as a cabinet official in July, Thammanat sought to downplay reports of a conviction in Australia in the 1990s. He acknowledged during earlier interviews in Bangkok that he was jailed for eight months, but said he had not been convicted of any drug-related offense.
“Why do I need to quit? A manly convict like me stands on the ground of truth,” he told reporters Tuesday.
Prayuth on Tuesday defended his decision to appoint Thammanat to the cabinet following calls from the opposition alliance Democratic Front for the deputy minister to clear his name or resign from his post.
“His qualifications were screened before taking the post. If someone had an old case, he must bear with the consequences,” Prayuth told reporters.
Prayuth is a former army chief who has led Thailand since May 2014, when he spearheaded a coup that toppled the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. In July, Prayuth and his cabinet were sworn into office by Thailand’s king, months after the country held its first general election since before the coup.
Thammanat accused his Thai political rivals of trying to discredit him by feeding the Australian newspaper with fabricated information.
The Herald's investigative report on Monday said Thammanat, a key ally of top Thai generals, was a young soldier named Manat Bophlom when he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import 3.2 kilograms (7 pounds) of heroin into Australia.
Thammanat was convicted with two Australian men and another Thai man named Sorasat Tiemtad and charged with conspiracy to import heroin, the report said. It said Thammanat and Sorasat were released on April 14, 1997, and immediately deported to Thailand, where he changed his name.
The newspaper said Thammanat’s deep connections in Thailand were “underlined when he produced character references from a judge and a police lieutenant-colonel who each said he ‘always has good behaviours [sic], honesty and is reliable.’”
Not the first
Thammanat is not the first Thai politician implicated in illicit activities.
In 1992, former Deputy Prime Minister Narong Wongwan’s bid to become prime minister failed after the United States had refused him a visa due to suspicion of involvement in drug trafficking, according to reports.
On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers accused Prayuth of constitutional violations for appointing an ex-convict to his cabinet.
“Don’t you excuse that [Thammanat] was not jailed in a Thai prison,” Cholanan Srikaew, a member of the opposition Pheu Thai Party posted on Twitter. “How come Prayuth installed him [as a minister]?”
Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the faculty of political science at Ubon Ratchathani University, told BenarNews that the government must take the Thammanat issue seriously.
“If he was jailed, that’s a serious crime,” said Titipol, referring to the deputy agriculture minister. “It is not appropriate to keep him as a minister. It’s a bad example.”
Updated to indicate that Prayuth made his comments after calls from the opposition alliance Democratic Front for Thammanat to clear his name or resign from his post.