Thai students blocked from protest over alleged corruption in construction of park

AT least 38 student activists were taken into military custody yesterday after a failed bid to stage a political stunt to highlight alleged corruption in the construction of Rajabhakti Park and demand that the government take action against it.

Hundreds of military and police stopped the students on a train at Ban Pong Station in Ratchaburi as they were travelling from the capital to the park in Prachuap Khiri Khan.

The students were taken to the Ninth Infantry Regiment Command in Nakhon Pathom's Buddhamondhol district.

They were released last night after agreeing not to hold any political activities concerning the scandal.

The students and political activists led by Thammasat University student Sirawith Seritiwat launched a campaign called "Taking the train to Rajabhakti Park, Lighting up the Corruption". Some 60 students and activists joined the trip.

National Council for Peace and Order spokesman Winthai Suvaree said the intention was not to detain the group but merely bar them from travelling to the park. He said the move was designed to prevent a possible confrontation that could have become violent.

A group of local royalists was seen waiting at the railway station shouting and scolding the students while they were taken from the scene. One shouted: "[If you] do not love the King, then get out [of the country]."

Sirawath is studying at Thammasat's Faculty of Political Science. He is the leader of many student groups such as Dome Front Agora and Democracy Study. He has been actively protesting against the junta since the coup in the middle of last year and detained a couple of times. Given this, he has often been confronted by officials while staging political activities.

Lawyer Anont Nampa joined the trip and was also arrested. He is with the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, which advocates for political defendants including those facing lese majeste charges.

Rajabhakti Park was closed to the public yesterday. Officials said roads at the park and other facilities needed to be repaired despite the park opening only a few months ago. It was guarded tightly by police and soldiers with barricades put at the entrance.

The arrest of the student activists was condemned locally and internationally.

National Human Rights Commission chairman Wat Tingsamitr said the agency would discuss the issue today.

British Ambassador to Thailand Mark Kent tweeted yesterday: "I had hoped the fact that 200 people [being] allowed to demonstrate at the US Embassy might be relaxation on freedom of assembly."

He was referring to a demonstration late last month against US Ambassador Glyn Davies for him criticising harsh penalties under the lese majeste law.

The activist group New Democracy Movement demanded in a statement that the junta to release the student activists without any conditions.

NDM said people had the right to examine government expenditure and the students arrested yesterday had that right violated. It said arresting them was proof that there was corruption in the construction of Rajabhakti Park, and yesterday's event was a victory because of that.

The Bt1-billion park has become a hot political issue after claims of corruption and irregularities in raising funds for its construction. Deputy Defence Minister Udomdej Sitabutr, who presided over construction of the park, admitted that commission fees were taken by someone involved in the project before being turned into 'donations'.

The government set up an in-house committee to investigate but the public has demanded an independent body be set up to look into the matter.

Pheu Thai Party legal adviser Ruangkrai Leekitwattana said he would call for the Auditor General to take back more than Bt46 million (S$1.8 million) spent on Rajabhakti Park, claiming that the budget had been misused.

He said the money was supposed to be spent on buying permanent property for the Army, but was used instead to buy construction materials for the park like marble, stone and granite.