PHUKET: The Royal Forest Department (RFD) this week ramped up its campaign to break open a network of corrupt officials who allegedly issued illegal land titles over the past three decades, covering at least 8 billion baht of protected land in Phuket.
Working in collusion since 1987, the officials continued to issue SorKor 1 land-use documents for plots in Sirinath National Park, RFD Director-General Theerapat Prayurasiddhi told the Phuket Gazette.
“Our current investigations have uncovered illegal land documents covering 300 rai in the park alone,” he said. “Those documents could be used to apply for full Chanote title deeds, worth in total an estimated 6bn baht.”
At least 16 officials are being targeted in the campaign, Mr Theerapat said.
“Our investigation is far from over, and we expect more officers to be involved,” he added.
Former Phuket Governor Wichai Phraisa-ngop, a Land Office chief and several other officials were named in a police complaint filed on Thursday over illegal land titles issued for 80 rai in Sirinath National Park.
Kitiphat Taraphiban filed the complaint at Thalang Police Station as one of his last acts as park chief – he submitted his resignation on Thursday after only three months as park chief amid death threats and intimidation by influential people (story here).
That complaint, naming a network of 13 people, centered on two Chanote titles issued in 2009, Mr Kitiphat explained (story here).
Another eight officials are in the line of fire, facing charges for their involvement in producing illegal land titles for plots within a protected forest area on the headland south of Patong Bay near Freedom Beach.
“That land alone has an estimated value of 2bn baht,” said RFD Director-General Theerapat. “But we’ll never figure out the cost of the natural resources lost.”
The Karon Police have been tasked with bringing the charges against the officials, Cheewapap Cheewatham, the former Sirinath National Park chief who now serves as director of the RFD’s Forest Protection and Fire Control Division, confirmed.
“They are facing charges under Sections 157 and 162 of the Thai Criminal Code,” he said.
If found guilty of both charges, the officials each face up to 17 years in prison, or a meager fine of up to 34,000 baht, or both.
However, Mr Cheewapap declined to name the suspects, noting, “We need to withhold their names for now as it might affect the investigation.”
To cement its case against the “Freedom Beach Eight”, the RFD has enlisted three “big guns” to ensure the suspects do not escape justice.
The Natural Resource and Environment Crime Suppression Division (NREC), a division of the Royal Thai Police headed by Gen Chaloemkiat Sriworakan, is assisting the Karon Police in their investigation, Mr Theerapat confirmed.
The NREC is acting under a direct order from the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to reclaim all public land in the country, and is tasked with updating the nation’s leaders on the unit’s progress each and every month.
“The NREC officers are experts in land cases,” Mr Theerapat explained. “They have better equipment and more in-depth knowledge. This can also lighten the load on the local police officers and help the investigation to proceed more quickly.”
Joining the fray is the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC), which can invoke further penalties against the suspects for engaging in corruption.
Key to the campaign is the support the NCPO has granted to investigators, Mr Theerapat explained.
“The investigators will report their findings to their superior officers, who in turn will report their progress to the NCPO,” he said.
“The NCPO has our backs and we have their protection. We are under armed military escort while conducting investigations on the island.”
— Chutharat Plerin