PM Prayut Chan-o-cha addresses the Parliament on Feb. 24, 2020.

BANGKOK — The first day of a much anticipated no-confidence debate kicked off Monday with the opposition slamming PM Prayut Chan-o-cha for allegedly granting a conglomerate privilege in a state contract and amassing personal wealth during his tenure.

The debate, the first of its kind in nearly seven years, targets Prayut and five of his Cabinet members, all of whom were present during the session today. Leading the charge was Pheu Thai MP Yuttapong Charatsathien who said the government granted privilege to Thai Charoen Corporation Group (TCC) by extending a 50-year lease of land without due cause.

Yuttapong said despite oppositions by the Office of the Attorney General, the new lease at where Queen Sirikit National Convention Center is located was awarded to the corporation without any competitor in January 2017.

“It didn’t fall under fair competition,” Yuttapong said, accusing Prayut of being in “cahoots” with TCC.

The MP also said Prayut’s father sold a 50 rai land plot in Bueng Kum district to entities linked to TCC at the inflated price of 600 million baht in 2013, well above the estimated market price of 197 million baht. The sales were made through a company registered just several days prior, he said.

“My suspicion is that it may be money laundering,” Yuttapong said. “The property company was set up seven days before the transaction was made.”

He added that Prayut received 540 million from his father, who recently died, in the 2013 deal.

In response to the allegation, Prayut said the company has the right to buy his father’s land at whatever price they see fit.

He also said the allegation that his government favored TCC is unfounded, because the transaction took place when he was army chief.

“Could I promise them that I would become PM?” Prayut addressed the House.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krue-ngam also said the government has listened to the cencerns expressed by the Office of the Attorney General in July 2016 before extending the land lease at the Queen Sirikit Convention Center.

“The government listened to the AOG because it will help our case if we are sued,” Wissanu said. “As to whether we are in cahoots with TCC or not is a matter of opinion.”

General Not Mister

The opposition has been banking its hope of ousting Prayut on the outcome of the censure debate, though it is unclear whether they would manage to rally enough votes in the government-dominated Parliament.

Under the law, if half of the lower house votes for a no-confidence motion against any Cabinet member after hearing the debate, the individual must leave the post. If the Prime Minister is dealt with a no-confidence vote, then his or her entire Cabinet must leave, and a new election be held.

Today’s debate was marked by moments of heated argument and challenges to the House Speaker, including a protest by six coalition MPs who demanded that the opposition address Prayut by his military title, “General.”

PM Prayut Chan-o-cha addresses the Parliament on Feb. 24, 2020.

The opposition MPs had been addressing the retired general as “Mr. Prayut” before the government lawmakers took offense. House Speaker Chuan Leekpai rejected their protest, saying the honorific of “Mr.” is already polite enough for a parliamentary debate.

Opposition leader Sompong Amornvivat also accused Prayut of running a fake democracy and failed economy. Prayut hit back by insisting that he won his second term as PM under the rules of the current charter.

The Prime Minister appeared to show a relatively high level of self-restraint throughout the debate despite his reputation for his quick temper; he once walked out on a Parliament session out of anger.

Prayut reportedly credited his composure to his wife, Naraporn Chan-o-cha. According to a government source, he told his Cabinet members he was instructed by his wife to refrain from “frowning and making an angry face” today.

Additional writing Teeranai Charuvastra