Godfather of Chonburi goes to jail… for now
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Godfather of Chonburi goes to jail… for now

The Nation:

Police were able to arrest fugitive Somchai Khunpluem after receiving a tip-off about two months ago that he was visiting Samitivej Hospital for medical treatment, an informed source claimed Wednesday.

The tip was later confirmed with the source adding that Somchai used the name Kim sae Tang when he consulted his doctors. The police investigation revealed he usually changed routes to and from the hospital to avoid police though he regularly used the motorway.

The source claimed the investigation showed Somchai has no passport, causing police to believe that he did not flee abroad but instead remained at his residence in Bang Saen, Chon Buri. It had earlier been speculated that Somchai had escaped to Cambodia.

The Bangkok Post:

Somchai, once dubbed the “Godfather of Chon Buri”,s was convicted in March last year in absentia by the Supreme Court for masterminding the murder of political rival Prayoon Sitthichoke at a wedding reception in March 2003. He was handed a sentence of 25 years in prison.

Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) commissioner Lt Gen Pongpat Chaiyaphan ordered a secret operation to capture Somchai after receiving tip-offs about his movements in Chon Buri.

Pol Lt Gen Pongpat assigned Pol Col Arthip Taennil, of the Crime Suppression Division (CSD), to form a team which in late December was able to verify that Somchai was holed up in his house.

Culture Minister Sonthaya Khunploem, Somchai’s son, arrived at the prison but did not get out of the car.

Somchai’s relatives informed the prison officials about his health conditions.

Mr Sonthaya said after the arrest that he could not do anything about his father’s predicament and would allow the law to take its course.

He pledged not to use his position to interfere in the work of authorities and had not talked about the matter with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra or Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung, who supervises the police force.

He dismissed speculation the arrest was the result of conniving by the government’s opponents and said it would not affect his cabinet position.

Mr Chalerm denied the arrest was politically motivated and said the issue would not endanger Mr Sonthaya’s post.

BP: A Chang Noi column from 2003 provides details on the rise and fall of Kamnan Poh (the nickname/moniker of Somchai Khunpluem). Some key excerpts:

Kamnan Poh’s name is a synonym for “godfather” and “influence”. For fifteen years, every journalistic review and academic study on Thailand’s murky local politics has made him the star.

Over the past decade, he has seemed ever more secure, confident, and untouchable. A senior police officer, deputed by the prime minister to investigate Poh, reported being hauled off the case by the top man in the police hierarchy. That is influence.

So why has he suddenly run into trouble? …

The godfathers rose at a time there was not a lot of law or government in the provinces. They made lots of money by exploiting that space. And then they provided the law and government. They regulated who got the good deals. They got rid of people who made trouble. They helped out those in difficulty.

If Kamnan Poh is brought down, he can curse the 1997 Constitution and the economic crisis. The modern politicians from Bangkok want to clean up the godfathers. They want politics and politicians to have a better public image. That means cutting out the people and practices that bring politics into disrepute. The modern businessmen from Bangkok want to clean up the godfathers too. Only a few years ago, the head of a big Bangkok business dynasty was furious that he had to go cap-in-hand to Kamnan Poh before he could start a business in Chonburi.

The 1997 Constitution has rigged the political system in favour of the capital. The economic crisis has persuaded the big Bangkok businessmen they need to be in politics. This has swung the balance of power against the godfathers.

But for Thaksin, the timing is delicate too. The last election felled some of the godfathers, but far from all of them. Many are still members of his coalition. One more general election could change the complexion of parliament further, and reduce this problem to insignificance.

BP:  In the 2007 general election, the Democrats dominated in Kamnan Poh’s family stronghold Chonburi and you started to wonder what influence he and his family still had, but in the years since then during local elections and the 2011 election, Kamnan Poh’s family started to win again.

So why the arrest now?

Thai Rath‘s political analysis states the arrest couldn’t have happened with the green light being given by someone (และคงไม่ใช่เหตุธรรมดาที่เจ้าหน้าที่ตำรวจถึงเป็นกองกำลังชุดคอมมานโด ปฏิบัติการก็จริง แต่คงไม่กล้าที่จะบุกจับสายฟ้าแลบเช่นนี้ ถ้าไม่มีสัญญาณ “ไฟเขียว”).

BP: Agree with Thai Rath that someone in the government, most likely Chalerm, gave the green light.  Nobody would make an arrest this big – and it is really a big arrest – without getting, at least, tacit approval from someone in the government first, but that doesn’t explain the timing. Is the arrest and/or timing related to his son wanting the Tourism and Sports Ministry? Some theories on why.

1. Banharn’s revenge?

The Palangchon faction i.e currently controlled by Kamnan Poh’s son, is a coalition member of the Puea Thai-led government. They only have half a dozen seats and one Minister, albeit the Culture Ministry, but have been wanting to take over the Sports and Tourism Ministry which is currently held by Banharn’s Chart Thai Pattana (Banharn’s brother who was the Minister recently died so he will need to be replaced). Banharn may have become concerned that his could happen and details of Kamnan Poh was passed onto the police.

However, BP isn’t really sure there was much chance that Banharn would have lost this Ministry in the first place as with only half a dozen seats, Palangchon don’t have that much bargaining power. Chart Thai Pattana are a much more important coalition partner for the government than Palangchon is and BP doesn’t think Thaksin & Co would want to upset the applecart by antagonizing Banharn.

2. Puea Thai wanting the Culture Ministry back?

Another alternative is those within Puea Thai could have passed on the tip and/or pushed for the arrest. Some in Puea Thai may hope that the government kicks Palangchon out of the coalition so they can take over the Ministry – reshuffles have been less infrequent and there is less of the pie to go around – but even with this arrest, it is unlikely that Palangchon will be kicked out of the government. Palangchon and Puea Thai are not in direct competition with each for seats. Palangchon compete with the Democrats for seats, mainly in Chonburi, and every seat that Palangchon wins is one the Democrats don’t win. It doesn’t seem worth the effort for just the Culture Ministry.

3. Matchima wanting in on the action?

Then you have another possibility with the Matchima faction in Bhum Jai Thai, which is led by Somsak Thepsuthin and consists of 7 MPs (see BKK Mango for more details), have effectively split from Bhum Jai Thai and would like a seat at the Cabinet table. If Puea Thai kick out Palangchon then they could replace them with the Matichima faction. Would Somsak have done the dirty on Kamnan Poh?

BP: To be honest, there are so many possible theories, but little clear evidence as to why the arrest now.

It may not have been directly politically-related.  The police could just got a very good and solid tip and once they confirmed the information, they went to someone higher up on the food chain until it reached a politician (just assuming Chalerm, but not necessarily so). This person would then have faced the choice of either telling the police “no” or green lighting the arrest. Saying “no” could have political ramifications if it leaked that Kamnan Poh’s arrest was blocked by the government and would have been a big political issue. Saying “yes” doesn’t really hurt the government either as Kamnan Poh was arrested when Thaksin when Thaksin was PM.

Why would the police act on the tip? It is the kind of arrest that if Central Investigation Bureau commissioner Lt Gen Pongpat Chaiyaphanwhen is promoted in the future to a senior position that no one will create a fuss as whenever his list of credentials is mentioned, on the top of the list will be this arrest.

While Kamnan Poh spent last night in jail, he was in the prison hospital and there is now talk that because of his ill health he will be moved to the Police Hospital – remembering he was 75 and he was allegedly caught on his way to the hospital – so depending on how bad his health is, the amount of time he spends in an actual prison cell may be quite short…