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Why do Thailand’s Rich, Powerful Get Away With Murder?

UCA News' Benjamin Freeman argues laws apply only to those who don't have enough money or influence to flout them

Vorayuth Red Bull Plane Exile Fugitive
Red Bull heir Vorayuth in continuing his jet-set life via private plane in a photo from his Facebook page.

One night in September 2012, Vorayuth Yoovidhya, a young Thai man on his way home, crashed his Ferrari at a speed of 177 kilometers an hour into a policeman on a motorcycle in Bangkok, killing him instantly.

Vorayuth, accused eight years later of being high on cocaine, dragged the policeman under his car 100 meters before fleeing into his family’s gated residence. Then in 2017, when an arrest warrant was finally issued for him, he fled Thailand rather than face the music in court.

In anyone’s book, what he did was a serious crime – or rather a series of crimes: Manslaughter, hit-and-run, fleeing from justice, drug use to name a few. But Vorayuth wasn’t just any young Thai man. He was the heir to the Red Bull energy drink empire and a member of Thailand’s second richest family.

As such, the justice system took the view that it was no big deal. After police spent years actively trying to bury the case, the Office of the Attorney General in June dropped the last of the charges against him – until public outrage finally reached so hot a boil s that the OAG reversed itself and slapped three new charges on him.

Of course, Vorayuth never ever really looked concerned about being arrested, as he lived a jet-setting lifestyle around the planet from the United Kingdom to Japan in full view of Thai authorities if they cared to take a look at his whereabouts — which they clearly didn’t.

Vorayuth Red Bull Heir

And so it goes in a country where the rich and powerful can get away with murder … literally.

On July 24, a police spokesman insisted that there were no double standards involved in letting him (initially) off the hook.

“We have to take him at his word,” said Pol. Col. Kissana Phathana-charoen.

Of course, for there to be double standards, there would need to be standards in the first place. But what exactly are the standards of Thailand’s law enforcement and judicial systems?

This is a country, after all, where a citizen can be sentenced to long years in prison merely for exercising freedom of speech by making critical comments about the government or the monarchy on social media on grounds that doing so undermines national security.

Meanwhile, the generals that spearheaded a military coup to overthrow an elected government in 2014 not only do not need to fear any prosecution for what, by international standards, was an act of treason. Yet they remain in charge, acting as they please.

Apologists of this sad state of affairs like to shrug it off as a time-honored feature of Thai society. “That’s just how it is, old boy. It’s always been like this,” they insist.

Apologists of this sad state of affairs like to shrug it off as a time-honored feature of Thai society. “That’s just how it is, old boy. It’s always been like this.”

But that is exactly what the problem is. The system of justice in Thailand has long stayed mired in a regressive state where the laws apply only to those who don’t have enough money or influence to be able to flout them at will.

The result is a vastly unequal society where the “little people” remain under the thumb of the rich and powerful who can do as they please with no one to hold them to account. That is hardly a recipe for social harmony and social justice.

To be sure, the situation is no better in most countries around Southeast Asia. Yet Thailand isn’t just any country in the region. It’s one of the most economically, politically and culturally powerful nations that often sets standards for its poorer neighbors, especially Laos and Cambodia.

By perpetuating a culture of impunity for a chosen few, Thailand makes it seem acceptable to apply laws selectively in the interest of those with money and power. Why should the self-appointed elites in Laos and Cambodia concern themselves with the rule of law if their dominant neighbor could not care less about it, either?

Benjamin Freeman is a commentator at UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.