ON LAND LOTTERY TRIAL : Cabinet spared, but cloud over Thaksin

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The Supreme Court’s verdict yesterday giving three senior Thaksin Shinawatra-administration officials suspended jail terms in connection with the “on land” lottery controversy seems like a slap on the wrist.

As far as Thaksin is concerned, it’s anything but.

The verdict let most of the Thaksin Cabinet responsible for the lottery scheme off the hook, but the court was clear about why: the Cabinet members who were set free had been unaware Thaksin was using them to push the controversial scheme through.

All of the Thaksin Cabinet responsible for the introduction of the lottery scheme, with the professed intention of eradicating the illegal underground lottery, had been implicated in the case following an investigation by the now-defunct Assets Examination Committee (AEC).

Found guilty were then-deputy finance minister Varathep Ratanakorn, then-Finance Ministry permanent secretary Somchainuk Engtrakul and then-Government Lottery Office chief Chaiwat Pasokpakdi. The trio were handed suspended two-year jail terms with probation.

The court suspended decisions on Thaksin, because he remains a fugitive after being convicted in another case.

The court said Varathep, acting under Thaksin’s prompting, proposed the lottery scheme to the Cabinet as a special agenda item, giving the other Cabinet members no time to review the plan. While reading the verdict, the court mentioned that Thaksin had summoned senior officials involved and gave them instructions to speed up the lottery scheme.

The Thaksin Cabinet passed the new lottery scheme in 2003, saying it was designed to eliminate underground bookmaking operations. AEC investigators concluded the Cabinet resolution to legalise the two- and three-digit lottery system fell afoul of the Government Lottery Office Act, because its nature was different from the government’s mainstream six-digit lottery.

The court dismissed the defendants’ claim that issuing the new lottery system was based on the same principle as a “charity lottery”, which required easier legal procedures. This was equivalent to saying the Cabinet made an illegal decision.

That made the court’s decision to leave out most of the Thaksin Cabinet look more telling. The ruling carried an unspoken message: the Cabinet had been manipulated or used. And even though the only penalties handed down were suspended two-year jail terms, it would be foolish of Thaksin to expect the same if or when the case is revived against him.

The court’s ruling prevented new brushes with then-members of the AEC after the now-disbanded body’s rubber-sapling case, another budgetary scandal of the Thaksin administration, was virtually thrown out by the same court a few days ago.

The Supreme Court yesterday issued the verdict despite the no-show of four suspects: ex-Government Lottery Office director Pol Maj-General Surasit Sangkaphong (Chaiwat’s successor), ex-finance minister Suchart Chaowisit and ex-Finance Ministry permanent secretary Somchainuk. A total of 47 people had been implicated.

Apart from ruling the Thaksin government could not introduce the lottery scheme under the guise of a charity lottery, the court also said the proceeds from the new lottery’s ticket sales were misused and that the “tax-free” claims for the income were wrongly made.

The lottery triggered protests by anti-vice groups. Thaksin’s government, fuelling controversy with the “promotion of gambling”, used the funds for an education sponsorship programme that critics viewed as a populist project.

The Nation, Published on October 1, 2009

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