At a military base outside Bangkok, soldiers stand guard over Buddha statues, showcases of Rolex watches and some very expensive French wine – a $4,000 (£2,625) bottle of Petrus and choice vintages of Dom Perignon.
It all belonged to a man who led Thailand’s equivalent of the FBI and is now serving 31 years in prison on corruption and other convictions. A four-day auction features a small portion of the 27,000 items police say they seized from longtime Central Investigation Bureau head Lt Gen Pongpat Chayapan.
Authorities are shocked by Pongpat’s actions, but the Thai public is mainly astonished that someone so powerful actually got caught. Those who study corruption in Thailand say the case is a window into what pervades society and is prominent in the police force.
Pongpat’s case is interwoven with the still-mysterious estrangement of Thailand’s Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and his third wife, the former Princess Srirasm. Pongpat is Srirasm’s uncle, and the couple’s split was publicised soon after the police scandal emerged last year. But in a country where insulting the monarchy can bring a 15-year prison sentence, nobody is asking too many questions.
Police accuse Pongpat of leading a network responsible for offences including money laundering, extortion and taking bribes from oil smugglers, illegal gambling dens and police officers seeking promotions. Pongpat was also convicted of insulting the monarchy because police said he claimed links to the monarchy to carry out the crimes.
“This is a very, very unusual case. There could not be another one like it,” said police Col Seehanat Prayoonrat, head of the Anti-Money Laundering Office.
Since Pongpat and several other police officers were arrested in November, authorities say they discovered assets worth more than 1 billion baht, or £20m, including 104 plots of land and a massive art stash that was hidden in underground vaults and safe houses. Much of it is not up for auction, including 12th-century Buddhist statues that have been turned over to Thailand’s Fine Arts Department.