BANGKOK — Transparency activists on Wednesday condemned a remark by Deputy PM Wissanu Krea-ngam, who implied that a politician can sidestep encroachment charges by simply handing the disputed lands back to the authorities.
Asked whether Phalang Pracharath MP Parina Kraikup would still face punishment after she agreed to hand over her 682 rai (109 hectare) land plot found to encroach on public lands reserved for impoverished farmers, Wissanu said he does not know the details, but suggested that the matter can be resolved when the land is returned.
“If it [the land] couldn’t be owned, then she has to return it,” Wissanu said. “Not every law uses the same principle.”
Earlier on Friday, Parina was given seven days to return the land to the Agricultural Reform Office after investigators confirmed that she had no right to own it.
Asked whether the government is trying to underplay legal complaints against Parina by shifting the focus to weaker punishments under the Agricultural Land Reform Act, Wissanu insisted that the government isn’t helping her.
“According to the law, the punishment for those who acquired [the land intended for farmers] is to return that land back to the government,” he said. “This punishment is better than criminal punishments which involve fines because it doesn’t cost the state a baht to prosecute.”
He then compared Parina’s case to the case of former Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, whose holiday home on Khao Yai Tieng was found to encroach into Khao Yai National Park. Gen. Surayud was later ordered to tear down the house without any criminal charges pressed against him.
Anti-corruption campaigner Veera Somkwamkid said Wissanu was twisting legal interpretation to suit his political gains.
“He has to defend Parina because it’s a part of Phalang Pracharath’s promise to clear out prosecuted MPs,” Veera said in an interview. “On top of that, the government is facing a razor-thin majority in the parliament. They couldn’t afford to lose Parina.”
The 682 rai land plot is part of the 1,700 rai (272 hectare) chicken farm owned by Parina. Different government agencies are taking legal action on different portions of the land, with another 46-rai (7.36 hectare) being declared by the Royal Forest Department as an intrusion on protected forest land.
If found guilty in the forest intrusion case, Parina faces up to 15 years in jail. But Wissanu’s hint that Parina will not be subjected to any criminal punishments riles up government critics, who say the law is not being applied evenly.
Opposition whip and Pheu Thai MP Suthin Klungsaeng said Wednesday the opposition is monitoring the case closely for government’s reaction, which he said could escalate into censure debate against a minister or even the entire cabinet.
Transparency activist Srisuwan Janya also slammed Wissanu’s comment, saying that “he shouldn’t act like he’s a court.”
“The deputy prime minister for legal affairs should uphold the values, enforcing the law without discrimination,” he said. “However, what we are seeing here is a government official who shamelessly said that not all the laws uphold the same principle.”
Srisuwan said he will file a complaint and legal suggestions to the Agricultural Land Reform Office for the agency to pursue further legal actions against Parina and other politicians who allegedly committed similar wrongdoings, though he wouldn’t disclose their names.
The Agricultural Land Reform Office and the Royal Forest Department said it would hold a meeting to decide which agency would take the lead in taking up criminal charges against Parina.