Sunday October 12, 2003
Gripping case of the rich MPBy M. VEERA PANDIYAN
WAS it suicide or a murder most foul? After four years, the debate over the death of a politician from one of Thailand's wealthiest families is yet to be buried. Neither has his body.
Since Sept 8, 1999, two days after he was found shot in the head, the remains of former Bangkok MP Hangthong Thammawattana has been floating in formalin at the Mahathat Temple in Bang Khen.
Now, with the second autopsy raising more questions than the first, the case has once again gripped the attention of Thais, even blurring the flurry of activities and announcements for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit next week.
Interest in the story is likely to be sustained for a while, given that the country's spiky-haired celebrity forensic pathologist Khunying Pornthip Rojanasunand is leading the new probe.
The police, who closed the case controversially in 1999 after declaring that Hangthong committed suicide, have now been forced to conduct another investigation on their own.
A “territorial war” between the police and the Justice Ministry's special investigation panel has already started, with the cops refusing to hand over the original reports and challenging suggestions of foul play by Khunying Pornthip and her team.
Hangthong was found dead in the apartment of his brother Noopadol in their palatial family mansion at Don Muang. To repeat a phrase often used by the media here, he “died under mysterious circumstances.”
Few believe in the suicide theory then and the number who think otherwise has grown larger. Besides the fact that the family has a legacy of having a record number of murdered kin, Hangthong was then the administrator of the family's fortune while his siblings were involved in a bitter inheritance feud.
Among the questions being asked is why was the suicide/murder weapon a revolver when the bullet was a 12-gauge buckshot, meant for shooting birds or small animals, and why were the four other bullets found in the revolver's chamber normal pistol bullets. Other recurring questions include the wide array of food in the premises and the large number of cigarette butts found in the room when Hangthong was not a smoker.
Immediately after his death, the family was split into two factions – one accepting the suicide theory and the other crying bloody murder.
As an MP, Hangthong was entitled to a royally endorsed funeral but because the official records state that he took his own life, he was denied the honour. As a result, the body was kept in limbo until early last month when one of his sisters, Naruemol Mungkornphanit, and a brother, Parinya Thammawattana, urged the government to re-open the case. They cited a Scottish forensic expert's report that the MP was most likely murdered, based on studies of photographs taken at scene of the crime.
Hangthong's death was the latest in a series of tragic events involving the Thammawattanas for more than two decades. The originally 13-member family was among the country's biggest landowners with huge tracts of prime properties in Don Muang and Pathum Thani, besides holding billions in cash and other assets.
Matriach Suwapee Thammawattana reportedly rose from humble beginnings as a vegetable seller to become the owner of the Ying Charoen Market, which is still run by the family.
Their curse can be traced back to 1979 when Suwapee was shot by an unknown gunman. She survived but the shot crippled her. Confined to a wheelchair, she moved to the US where she was later diagnosed with cancer. (She died after returning home in 1989.)
Three years after the shooting, her eldest daughter Kusuma Thammawattana, who was then running the family's business, became the next victim. She was shot dead outside the market.
When police caught up with the hired gunman, he claimed that Kusuma's uncle, Bavorn Thammawattana, and her two nieces were the masterminds behind the murder. It is not known whether they were arrested and tried.
In 1986, it was the turn of the father, Akom Thammawattana. He, too, was shot dead outside the market.
Four years later, Naiyana Thamprakob, the eighth child in the family, was stabbed to death. She was handcuffed and left to die in a car at Kanchanapuri. Naiyana was earlier disowned from the family as punishment for marrying a police officer against the matriach's wishes. She was forgiven and reinstated but death came swiftly after.
The following year, the eldest son, Thoedchai, was abducted. He has never been seen since and is also presumed to have been murdered.
Hangthong took over the managing of the fortune while his sister Kaneungnij ran the market and other businesses. However, serious differences among the siblings surfaced when the MP appointed Samak Sundaravej – then the leader of his Prachakorn Thai Party and currently the governor of Bangkok – as executor. There were claims that money from the estate was used to fund the party.
A younger brother, Noppadol, and a younger sister Mallika Leeprapan, opposed Hangthong publicly. They filed a suit to dismiss Samak as the executor.
Incidentally, the last person to see Hangthong alive was Noppadol, who has consistently maintained his story that his brother took his own life. In his original testimony to the police, Noppadol said he was making a cereal drink at about 2am when he heard a gun go off. He said he rushed upstairs to find his brother bleeding from the head and holding a gun.
In his more recent testimony to the Parliament Committee on Police Affairs, Noppadol again said it was suicide but he also stated instances of how politicians and powerful figures had “fed on his family's wealth.”
What's the evidence of foul play so far? Legally, there is none yet that can stand the scrutiny of another court case but there are enough inconsistencies to keep the media in a feeding frenzy for weeks, further undermining the battered image of the Thai police.
As soon as Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra gave the go-ahead to re-open the files last month, Khunying Pornthip released the report of Dr Adrian Matthew Thornton Linacre, senior lecturer in forensic science at Strathclyde University in Scotland.
Dr Linacre noted that bloodstains were found on the chair, table and on a tissue box near the body.
“The stains were most likely the result of aerial distribution from a source close to the body, resulting from close use of significant force,” he said in the report, suggesting that Hangthong did not pull the trigger.
Police have dismissed the suggestions, saying that examination of photographs and not the crime scene was not good enough for adducing evidence.
But the people tend to believe in the murder theory because of the jarring differences in the autopsies conducted by the police and the new one by the special probe team. Besides, they just love the way Khunying has been highlighting the shortcomings in the original police probe.
To cite a few examples, the police autopsy said there were bloodstains on the head, left side of the body, the back of the left hand and on the right hand and there was gunpowder residue around the wound to the head. The second autopsy, however, showed that the bullet entered the head at a downward angle from the back, contradicting police claims that Hangthong bent his head downward and used both hands to hold the gun.
Khunying has also questioned the time of Hangthong's death, claiming he was killed earlier than the official version of 2am, based on the contents of undigested remnants of pomelo found in his intestines and disputed claims that he had eaten some instant noodles before his death.
Midway through the debate, another significant incident lent more weight to the conspiracy theory. A pre-dawn fire in a parliamentary office on Wednesday destroyed records of testimonies pertaining to the Hangthong case.
Among the 2,000 pages of documents destroyed were records of financial transactions Noppadol stated as evidence of how politicians and influential figures had benefited from his family's money.
House committee chairman Chumphol Kanchana, however, said he had back-up copies of the documents but the report on the investigations might be delayed because of the fire.
A day earlier, Manit Suthaporn, deputy permanent secretary of the Justice Ministry, claimed there was enough evidence to suggest that more than 10 professional killers were involved.
“The group of people who are believed to have killed Hangthong comprised specialists from many fields. They were from the legal sector, they were good with guns, knew how to cover up evidence and they could have been familiar with killing techniques. But they still left traces for forensic scientists to find,” he said.
M. Veera Pandiyan is Editor, Asia News Portal, based in Bangkok (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)