BANGKOK — A minister on Monday distanced himself from the revelations that his aide stockpiled and sold 200 million face masks to China amid their acute shortage in Thailand.
Assistant Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao denied knowledge of the business deals. He also pledged to fire and prosecute Pitinan Rak-iad if clear evidence implicated him in the scandal, which followed rising public frustration over the government’s botched responses to the coronavirus outbreak.
The scandal surfaced on social media thanks to a popular Facebook page who post photos of Pitinan discussing the sales of stockpiled masks to a businessman named Sornsuvee Puraweeratwatcharee at a hotel.
“If Pitinan is found to be linked to the wrongdoing committed by Sornsuvee, I am ready to cooperate in prosecuting Pitinan,” Thammanat told reporters.
Stockpiling or profiting from sanitary masks was banned by a government order that aimed to ensure supplies for ordinary consumers. Violators face up to seven years in prison.
When asked about the incident, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha refused to comment on Monday.
Information posted by “Queen of Spade” Facebook page and images taken from Pitinan’s own social media accounts show Sornsuvee advertising face masks at the price of 14 baht per piece, well above the government’s selling prices of 2.5 baht per piece.
Sornsuvee also posed with piles of mask boxes reportedly sold to buyers in China and published a video on Feb. 7 saying he had more for everyone, if the price is right.
“We have plenty. Don’t worry that you can’t get it as long as you have money,” Sornsuvee said as workers loaded boxes upon boxes of masks onto a truck in the background.
In photos Sornsuvee posted on Facebook on Feb 20, he and Pitinan raised up their thumbs alongside an unidentified man, with a caption: “Talking about sanitary masks business with brothers here. If you want anything, we can cater for you.”
The news was met with widespread anger on social media, where many complain of high demand of sanitary masks and shortage of equipment for public hospitals. Some physicians have posted online that they are already running low on the much needed masks.
Sornsuvee appeared to have deactivated his Facebook account by the time of publication. Shortly before his account became inaccessible, the man posted an apology to Pitinan for “unwittingly posted photos [of Pitinan] and causing trouble.”
But Pitinan told a local television channel on Monday that he doesn’t know the man and only took photos with him at a local hotel in Bangkok on Feb. 20 because they happened to have a mutual friend.
“I must apologize for the misunderstanding,” he said, adding that he has made a police report to declare that he has nothing to do with Sornsuvee or the sale of the masks. “I really don’t know.”