The prime minister instead decided to play it safe and called on Tuesday morning from New York, where she is attending the UN General Assembly, instructing Mr Yongyuth to go and inspect the flood situation in Prachin Buri province.
Before leaving Bangkok for New York, the prime minister assigned Mr Yongyuth to chair the weekly cabinet meeting in her absence, but she abruptly changed her mind.
What is well known is that the opposition Democrats had threatened to take the prime minister to task if Mr Yongyuth was allowed to head the cabinet meeting. Democrat MP for Songkhla Wirat Kalayasiri, the party’s legal expert, said the entire cabinet, including the prime minister, would be collectively held accountable and might face criminal charges under Article 157 of the Criminal Code if it was ruled later that Mr Yongyuth was not qualifield to chair the meeting.
Mr Yongyuth was faulted by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for malfeasance in office in connection with the Alpine land scandal and then dismissed by the Interior Ministry’s civil service sub-committee last week.
Mr Wirat insisted that, despite the assertions of the government's supporters, Mr Yongyuth was not entitled to be cleared of his offence under Article 5 of the Exoneration Act, which took effect on Dec 5, 2007 and which gave royal pardons to civil servants convicted of administrative offences to mark His Majesty the King’s 80th birthday.
He said Mr Yongyuth was, therefore, not qualified to hold on to his cabinet positions.
To make it easier for readers to understand this scandalous land case, here is the background.
The land, a total of 927 rai, in Pathum Thani was bequeathed to Wat Thammikaram in Prachuap Khiri Khan by the Mrs Nuam Chamnanchartsakda in 1969 under the terms of her will. Later, the heritage managers of the land were forced out and replaced by the Mahamakut Buddhist University Foundation, which sold a large chunk of the land, 732 rai in total, to Alpine Golf Real Estate and Alpine Golf Sports Club -- companies jointly owned by two members of the Thienthong family, Mrs Uraiwan and Mr Witthaya, and Chucheep Harnsawat -- on Aug 31, 1990 for 130 million baht.
The land sale took place when Sanoh Thienthong was deputy interior minister in charge of the Land Department. The land was developed as a golf course and was later sold to the Shinawatra family for about 500 million baht.
While serving as the deputy interior permanent secretary and acting permanent secretary, Mr Yongyuth approved the land sale on March 13, 2002. On April 11 of the same year the Council of State ruled that the land in question could not be legally sold or transferred because it was monastic land.
Mr Yongyuth was investigated by the National Anti-Corruption Commisson for malfeasance in office and in June this year the commission found him guilty and decided to launch disciplinary and criminal proceedings against him. But graft commissioner Klanarong Chantik said the NACC’s ruling would not affect Mr Yongyuth’s current political positions.
On Sept 14 the Interior Ministry’s civil service subcommittee ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove Mr Yongyuth guilty, as had been agreed by three members of the NACC. But the subcommittee did agree that Mr Yongyuth should be expelled from government service retroactive to Sept 30, 2002.
On the question of punishment, the Council of State secretary-general Atchaporn Charuchinda cited a ground rule that disciplinary action could not be taken against retired officials even if they were found guilty later on. He also maintained that Mr Yongyuth had already been exonerated by the Exoneration Act.
Under the basic principles of the Exoneration Act, to be eligible a person must have served punishment for the offence in full or in part. But in Mr Yongyuth’s case, he was punished by the Interior Ministry’s civil service subcommittee on Sept 14 this year – that is, expelled from the service 10 years after his retirement.
The mind-boggling question, which defies logic, is: How could Mr Yongyuth be punished since he had retired from the service 10 years ago, even his expulsion was retroactive to his last day in the service? Also, since he was never actually punished, how could he be exonerated? And that leads to the next question, about his qualification to hold on to his cabinet posts – both as a deputy prime minister and as interior minister.
If the government, the Pheu Thai Party and the Council of State are confident that Mr Yongyuth has already been exonerated of the malfeasance charge in connection with his involvement in the Alpine land scandal, why was he not allowed to chair the cabinet meeting this Tuesday? And why was his plan to submit the reshuffle list of some 20 governors for cabinet’s approval dropped?
It seems that the biggest problem of this government is that they cannot accept any truth that is embarrassing. Just as the red-shirt leaders and several Pheu Thai MPs cannot accept the truths about their own guilt in the April-May political violence in 2010 and are crying foul against the final report of the Truth for Reconciliation Commission.