On the career of Montree Pongpanit: lest we forget

2 November 1998

Montree Pongpanit’s decision to step down from the leadership of the Social Action Party (SAP), and from the Cabinet, is a historic moment. Since 1988, with Montree as general secretary and then leader, SAP has been part of every elected coalition government. In most of them, Montree has occupied a senior ministerial post. No other party or leader can match this record of staying in power.

But what have the people got out of this? Montree himself hardly ever says a word in parliament. He has never aired any vision on the future of Thailand or the role of democracy. He has not been identified with any significant piece of legislation. Meanwhile Chang Noi has several times heard Montree nominated as candidate for the title of “the worst man in Thailand”.

In 1990, when SAP was a partner in Chatichai Choonhavan’s “buffet cabinet”, an SAP junior minister under pressure to resign over corruption charges decided to sing to the press about the wrongdoings of his colleagues. In particular, he described how Montree, as party secretary-general, had tutored him on how to accept bribes, as follows: “In what you do, be sure there is a perfect fit [i.e. no loose ends], that all is clear. Have them come and meet you and write the numbers on a paper, and tear it up and throw it away. Don’t go and say for that a million, for this a million.” After the junior minister was forced to admit he held stock in a construction company which his ministry had awarded a contract, Montree, he alleged, had upbraided him: “How can you have stock [in the construction company]? I have a lot [of stock in similar situations] and don’t see any problems. Use the names of subordinates.” (interview reported in Matichon 14 August 1990 and Nation 15 August 1990)

The junior minister concluded: “Montree taught me the techniques to make money for the party. I am not as good as Montree…” The Nation ran the story under the headline “Montree taught me to cheat”.

Others came forward to confirm that Montree was expert in these techniques. Another MP told how Montree had given him a cheque for 40,000 baht to settle a problem, but when the issue got into the press, Montree asked him to return the checque in return for 40,000 baht in cash wrapped up in a newspaper.

In the Chatichai government (1988-91), Montree held the post of minister of transport and communications. After he signed a contract for installation of three million new telephone lines at a cost of 150 billion baht, the press alleged major bribery had taken place. The successor Anand Panyarachun government called for a revision on grounds that the agreement broached contract law. As part of the revision, the contractor’s profit was reduced by 70 billion baht.

In the dying days of the Chatichai government, five contracts were signed for transport projects in Bangkok, under the control of various ministries. Montree signed the deal with Hopewell. The rumour-mill told of agents visiting ministers with suitcases full of cash to secure the vital signatures before the government fell. Nobody cared to notice that the various projects were mutually incompatible in many ways. Sorting out the mess delayed these projects for years.

After the 1991 coup, Montree was one of the ten people found to have become “unusually wealthy” during the Chatichai government. According to the Assets Examination Committee, he had profited to the extent of 336.5 million baht, particularly from the inflated price on a land purchase by Thai International. This figure was the second-highest, exceeded only by the SAP minister of commerce who had garnered 608 million in gift cheques from agricultural exporters. The Committee was later deemed unconstitutional so the verdicts lapsed.

In a Chulalongkorn University survey in 1992-3, 37.9 percent of people cited SAP in reply to the question “thinking of corruption what political party do you think of”, ranking SAP second behind Chat Thai.

In the Banharn Silapa-archa government (1995-6), Montree was minister of agriculture. In May 1996, an opposition MP alleged that he had made 2 billion baht from a scheme to distribute fertiliser to poor farmers. The price, the MP contended, was inflated and many sales took place on paper only. The same MP also suggested Montree had profited from sale of machinery to a state enterprise under the ministry. He described how the contractor and ministry representatives had haggled over the bribe by silently exchanging hand signals, with each finger raised signifying one million baht.

Montree also backed the construction of the Kaeng Sua Ten dam. Opponents claimed the project offered more benefits to contractors and bribe-takers than to the farmers, and would destroy the nation’s last remaining forest of golden teak. Montree countered that this teak forest simply did not exist. Newspapers published photos to disprove him. One paper ran a cartoon portraying Montree as a caped Dracula with his fangs sunk into a tree. Banharn switched Montree to a deputy premiership before these allegations had time to ferment.

In the Chavalit Yongchaiyudh government (1996-7), Montree was minister of health. No scandal emerged during his tenure, but doctors and health officials recently insisted that the ministry should be removed from SAP as two ministers had already done so much damage.

Montree’s reputation has rubbed off on his junior SAP colleagues. Somsak Thepsuthin and Rakkiat Sukthana have become lightning rods for corruption allegations. During the Banharn Cabinet, Somsak was a deputy communications minister. The press alleged he profited from irregularity in buying computers for the meteorology department. Just before the government fell, he signed a contract for landfill at the Nong Ngu Hao airport. The press and Amnuay Virawan later alleged the price was vastly inflated. As industry minister in the Chuan Leekpai cabinet (1997-8) Somsak became an early target for corruption allegations, particularly over an alleged 200 million baht bribe to raise sugar prices.

During the Banharn government, Rakkiat Sukthana was minister in the prime minister’s office. When he sacked the entire board of the electricity generating authority (EGAT), union members alleged he was planning to fix the bidding on a power plant project. Under Chuan, he has been at the centre of the scandal in the health ministry.

Of course, all these allegations may be without any substance. Nothing has been legally proven. Except in the “unusually wealthy” investigation, no receipts have been found. But it is still a remarkable history.

Montree’s success in staying close to power has been based on a very canny formula. Alone among the leaders of major parties in recent years, he has shown no ambition to become prime minister. As a result, he has not crashed and burned as others have. Instead, he has offered SAP to every successive prime minister as a nice little coalition filler. This in turn has enabled him to attract a continuing supply of new party recruits who have seen SAP as one of the most reliable routes to a ministerial post.

He has glided from coalition to coalition with the grace of a figure-skater. In 1991, he was branded by the military as one of the “unusually wealthy” of the Chatichai era. But by early 1992, he made his peace with the generals and was accepted into the military-led coalition. When this coalition appeared doomed, he publicly turned critical and two months later slid into the anti-military “angel” coalition under Chuan. Similarly in 1996 he slid from Banharn to Chavalit with ease, and from Chavalit to Chuan with only a little bumpiness.

Montree has increased his appeal as a coalition filler by not competing for the high-profile ministerial posts. He and his party have shown little interest in finance, interior and foreign. After the high-profile high jinks of the Chatichai era, he has even steered clear of communications. Instead he has focused on health and agriculture. Usually they attract little public attention. But of course they have large procurement budgets.

In face of the flood of allegations that have come his way over the last decade, Montree’s response has been similarly low-key. He has not indulged in showy professions of innocence. He has not hurled law-suits about. Rather, he has kept his head down. And occasionally moved himself and his people discreetly out of the firing line.

Montree’s professed stepping-down from the political front-line may only be a feint. But there is a feeling that he really is ready for retirement, and that SAP is doomed. So it is important to mark this historic moment, and to record the background. Lest we forget.