Thai interior minister steps down in land scandal

AP News
Posted: Sep 28, 2012 9:42 AM
Thai interior minister steps down in land scandal

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's second-most powerful government official resigned Friday over allegations that he mishandled a land corruption case involving former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra 10 years ago.

Yongyuth Wichaidit said he was stepping down on his own initiative to avoid legal complications. He has been interior minister and deputy prime minister in the current government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, as well as leader of her Pheu Thai Party. His resignation takes effect Monday.

Different state agencies have contradictory views about whether Yongyuth was liable for a ruling he made in 2002 as acting permanent secretary of the Interior Ministry. The ruling declared that a controversial land sale to a Thaksin-owned company in 1997 had been legal.

Yongyuth has been a stalwart supporter of Thaksin, who was deposed by a coup in 2006 amid allegations of corruption and abuse of power. A Thai court convicted the former prime minister of conflict of interest in 2008 and he fled abroad to avoid jail. However, Thaksin, who remains in self-exile, is widely seen as pulling the strings in his sister's government.

Because Thailand has a centralized bureaucracy with local officials appointed from the capital, the post of interior minister is very influential and considered a political plum. Whatever replacement Yingluck appoints is likely to leave some factions in her party dissatisfied.

The land scandal dates back to 1997, when a company owned by Thaksin — a billionaire businessman then serving as deputy prime minister — bought the Alpine Golf and Sports Club in central Pathum Thani province from a company affiliated with another politician.

However, in 2001 — after Thaksin's party won a general election but before he took office — Thailand's Council of State, the government's legal interpretive body, ruled that the original sale of land was invalid, because it had been ceded to a Buddhist temple in a will, and therefore was legally religious land and not allowed to be sold or transferred.

In June this year, the National Counter Corruption Commission found Yongyuth guilty of malfeasance for finding that the Alpine land sale was legitimate. An Interior Ministry committee ruled that he should be expelled from his post retroactively to 2002, but there were legal questions raised about whether this would force him out of his ministerial post.