It has not been a good couple of weeks for Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thamanat Prompao.
First, he was grilled in the censure debate for alleged corruption and a past criminal conviction in Australia. Then he claimed the drugs for which he was arrested in Australia was actually flour and not heroin.
Now, Sornsuwee Phuraweeratsawatcharee, a businessman with ties to Pithinant Rakeiad, an assistant of Thamanat, is accused of exporting facemasks overseas at a time when Thailand is experiencing real shortages.
Sornsuwee was seen on a widely-shared video showing workers hauling boxes and boxes of what were believed to be facemasks onto pick-up trucks. He was seen saying “don’t worry [about not getting masks], as long as you have money.” He also boasted to have over 200 million face masks in stock in the series of videos.
Of course, Thamanat has denied any connection and said he would sue anyone caught saying otherwise.
But already his political opponents have pounced. Phumtham Wechayachai, an adviser to the leader of the Pheu Thai-led opposition, said that this was likely the straw that broke the back of the coalition government.
Senior Democrat MP Panich Vikisreth told Thai Enquirer on Tuesday that unless Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha removed Thamanat, he would advocate for the party to leave the coalition.
“There are individuals connected to the deputy agricultural minister [Thamanat Prompao] that have added to the suffering of the people,” Panich said. “That they would sell the masks when we are experiencing a shortage in the middle of an outbreak is inexcusable. It is a terrible thing.”
The suspect, Sornsuwee Phuraweeratsawatcharee, is now in police custody at the Royal Thai Police Headquarters in Bangkok.
He turned himself over to police in Chonburi after the entire country took up arms both online and off. He denied having ever hoarded or exported facemasks. But the video evidence is there, and police say they are investigating and contacting the custom departments to find whether any masks had been exported by Sornsuwee.
What is clear is that after the initial investigation, Police Commissioner Montree Yimyam confirmed that “the factory and masks [in the video] are real.”
According to the leaked videos, Sornsuwee was selling the masks through an intermediary to the online commerce site Alibaba.
The Alibaba Group has already released a statement which denied the allegation and maintain that they have not done any business with Sornsuwee. They said they would file a complaint against anyone that uses their name for a business deal without their permission.
According to a Facebook post made by Sornsuwee, he said he was willing to sell 5 million facemasks at a price of 14 baht per piece but with a minimum order of 1 million pieces and up only.
Sornsuwee also posted photos of himself standing next to an alleged representative from China with a sign saying, “ready to deliver protective supplies to Lin Hai city government.”
Thamanat said this week that according to the Internal Trade Department and the Thai Police, the millions of masks that were allegedly being hoarded do not exist, contradicting some police statements.
Thamanat said on Tuesday that the leaked videos had been doctored and their release to the public is part of an operation to bring down the government.
The deputy minister said that he would be putting together a team that would show the public the “real truth.”
The deputy minister also denied knowing both Sornsuwee and Pithinant in person and said that he only communicated to Phitinant digitally and that he was a ‘failed parliamentary candidate.’
The ‘Queen of Spades’ Facebook page, which was the first outlet to publish the leaked videos of Sornsuwee is now shut down.
The administrator said his/her family feared for their safety. Whether there were actual threats or based merely on the reputation of Thamanat and his associates was not made clear.
Thamanat has been accused by the Thai legal system of murder in the past but was later acquitted. Thamanat said that he was only accused because the murder took place in an office that he owned.