On 2 December, the Constitutional Court ruled that the occupation of an army house by the former Royal Thai Army commander and now Prime Minister does not constitute a conflict of interest.
Gen Prayuth Chan-o-cha (Source: Thaigov.go.th)
The verdict cited 2005 RTA regulations on housing which allow the army to provide housing, along with utility fees, to commanding officers with the rank of general or former army commanders who still contribute to the army or the country.
The PM also holds an important position as the head of the cabinet and the government. The security of the PM and their family is an important issue and the state should provide them the proper safety and privacy for them to perform their duties. The existing official residence of the PM, Ban Phitsanulok, is also not ready to be used.
So even though Prayut retired from the army in 2014, his residency is not special treatment from a government body, as he is qualified to stay in army housing, and does not create a conflict of interest under the Constitution or the Code of Ethics for Political Office Holders.
Prayut Chan-o-cha's residence in the 1st Infantry Regiment, King's Guard, on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, Bangkok, was raised during the opposition’s censure debate against the government on 25-27 February, 2020, by Pheu Thai Party (PTP) MP Prasert Chantararuangthong.
On March 9, Sompong Amornwiwat, leader of the PTP and the opposition coalition, along with 56 other representatives, submitted a petition to Parliament to have the Constitutional Court consider the issue, claiming it was a conflict of interest that disqualified him as PM. The petition was submitted to the Court the next day.
The petition accused Prayut of a conflict of interest for living in a military house despite not having any military duties after his retirement as army chief in 2014. By staying free of charge, he had broken army regulations.
This therefore violated Sections 184 and 186 of the Constitution, Section 128 of the Organic Act on the Prevention and Suppression of Corruption and Section 9 of the Code of Ethics for Political Office Holders.
The army explained that Prayut’s house was re-designated from being a ‘welfare house’ to a ‘visitor’s house’ in 2012, which enables it to be used for accommodating members of the Privy Council and Cabinet, Members of Parliament and Senators. To qualify, an occupant must have held high command in the army and still contribute to the country, which matches Prayut’s status.
Military black box underlined by the ruling?
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a lecturer at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, posted on Facebook that the court has decided conflict of interest cases in different ways.
The court set high standards in the 2008 case over PM Samak Sundravej’s appearance on a TV cooking show and the 2020 case of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s shares in a media company by extending its consideration beyond the related law. For example, it extended the definition of ‘employee’ in Samak’s case and attempted to investigate Thanathorn’s actions to refute his legal argument.
In contrast, in the case of housing provided free of charge to PM Prayut Chan-o-cha, the court did not look into anything beyond army regulations to conclude that the housing was a regular benefit. There are many other questions that the court should take into account. For example, in the past, has the army allowed former commanders to stay in housing or not, especially those that have been PM? Or could this kind of housing benefit lead to any policy bias within the army or not?
“In a broad view, dissatisfaction with this ruling reflects dissatisfaction with the army as a twilight zone where benefits are allocated to high-ranking officers to such an extent that the public is unable to verify what is happening, while some [soldiers] lack housing, which is related to the Korat shooting case. In a case like this, it may be stated that this verdict has meant that those who died the Korat shooting incident died in vain.”
Military housing roused public concern after the Korat mass shooting on 8-9 February, around 2 weeks before the censure debate, when Sgt Jakkrapanth Thomma killed at least 30 people, using military weapons he stole from his base. He was reportedly provoked by a conflict with his superior about housing.
Gen Apirat Kongsompong, the then Royal Thai Army commander, then announced reforms in the military welfare system. Retired officers were required to vacate their military residences.
Lt Gen Pongsakorn Rodchompoo, then a Future Forward Party (FFP) executive member, was found to be staying in a military house. He later resigned from his post in the FFP to show responsibility.
Note: The article was edited grammarly and linguistically on 2 December, 2020, 19.44.
Khemthong's Facebook post was added on 4 December, 2020, 10.06.