BANGKOK — A minister embroiled in narcotics allegations insisted on Tuesday he is a victim of a sinister political plot to smear his name, and said he will not quit his cabinet post.
Refusing to neither confirm nor deny a report by an Australian newspaper that alleged he spent four years behind bars for trafficking drugs into Australia nearly three decades ago, agriculture assistant minister Thammanat Prompao said the paper colluded with his political foes in Thailand to discredit him.
“Now I know everything about who’s behind it all,” Thammanat told reporters in his first public interview since Sydney Morning Herald broke the news earlier this week. “But it’s alright, this is something I must fix by myself.”
The 53-year-old politico continued, “What the Australian media wrote, I know its links and background. Now I know the entire network.”
Thammanat then made a bizarre assertion that the Herald was following a script provided by his opponents.
“I don’t believe the newspaper’s claim that it has information from an Australian court,” the former soldier said. “I believe the piece was written in Thailand, and then sent to reporters in Australia.”
He went on, “Why would an Australian media outlet suddenly attack me, if it wasn’t because of some domestic action?”
The Herald’s report cited court documents as the basis of its allegation that Thammanat pled guilty to heroin trafficking charges back in 1993 and was subsequently jailed for four years.
In Tuesday’s interview with reporters, Thammanat repeated his threat to sue the Australian paper and its “network” of conspirators “in civil and criminal” courts.
“I never pled guilty. I never did anything wrong as alleged,” said Thammanat, whose declared assets are estimated at 866 million baht. “From now on, I won’t give a response to anyone who talks about my past. But I will take every possible legal action.”
When a reporter asked whether he really did spend four years in an Australian prison, the politician said he has already discussed the matter and would not answer the question. He also challenged those responsible for the alleged smear campaign to show themselves.
“I think whoever has a problem with me should show their faces and have a boxing match with me,” Thammanat said. “Don’t be a coward like this. I’m not saying I want to challenge anyone to a fight, but I want them to say it in the open.”
Thai laws bar those with drug convictions from serving in the cabinet, though a government official previously suggested the ban was not applicable to verdicts handed down by foreign courts.
Asked whether he would resign over the scandal, Thammanat shot the question back to the reporter: “Why should I quit?”
Other cabinet members appear to be distancing themselves from Thammanat, with Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam and Interior Affairs Minister Anupong Paochinda refusing to comment on the case.
But PM Prayuth Chan-ocha suggested the controversy is a “small matter,” and advised the media to focus more on other news.