Red Bull heir's hit-and-run case adds to Thai cyncism about the rule of law

In this Sept 3, 2012 file photo, Vorayuth Yoovidhya, a grandson of late Red Bull founder Chaleo Yoovidhaya, is taken for investigation in Bangkok. Thai authorities are seeking an arrest warrant for the heir to the Red Bull energy drink fortune after
In this Sept 3, 2012 file photo, Vorayuth Yoovidhya, a grandson of late Red Bull founder Chaleo Yoovidhaya, is taken for investigation in Bangkok. Thai authorities are seeking an arrest warrant for the heir to the Red Bull energy drink fortune after he failed to appear for his indictment in the hit-and-run death of a policeman, a prosecutor said on Sept 2, 2013. -- FILE PHOTO: AP

A year ago, a police officer patrolling Bangkok’s streets on his motorbike was hit by a Ferrari. The driver, instead of stopping to help, sped off, and dragging the officer’s dead body down the street.

Police followed the oil streaks on the road to the home of Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the grandson of the late Chaleo Yoovidhya, who founded the Red Bull energy drink empire and whose clan is among the richest in Thailand.

The Yoovidhyas’ family driver initially tried to take the blame, but the young man eventually admitted to the deed. His family also paid almost US$100,000 (S$126,858) compensation to the officer’s family.

Earlier this month however, he got off on a speeding charge over the case.

While out on bail, Mr Vorayuth, 28, had failed to answer summonses five times before. His most recent no-show  – attributed by to what his lawyer Thanit Buakaew said was an illness while on a trip to Singapore – allowed him to beat the speeding charge as its statute of limitations expired one day later.

While he faces two more serious charges of reckless driving and failing to help the victim, though the question is whether he would return to Thailand at all before the 10-year statute of limitations for those charges are expires.

Many Thais are not so hopeful. “I think it will take a long time for him to be punished, given how rich he is,” wrote one reader on the popular website pantip.com.

Locals have become all too familiar with the impunity of the wealthy and connected, and the Vorayuth case has hardened their cynicism about the rule of law in their own country.

On Sept 10, a former deputy interior minister, Pracha Maleenont, was sentenced to 12 years’ jail for his role in purchasing fire trucks at inflated prices some 10 years ago for the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration. The tycoon was nowhere to be found and also said to be abroad.

Thus, he too joins the list of other high profile personalities who have skipped town after their convictions. They include businessman Akeyuth Anchanbutr, who was murdered earlier this year (2013). In 1983, he left Thailand after being convicted of running an investment pyramid scheme, and only returned after the expiry of the state of limitations.Mr Akeyuth was a prominent critic of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - the brother of current premier Yingluck Shinawatra - who incidentally is himself living abroad to evade a jail term imposed for conflict of interest.

Mr Thanit reportedly told the media Mr Vorayuth has not set a return date to Thailand, but has “no intention to escape”, according to a New York Times report.

Locals, however, are not so sure.

“I have never seen a rich person in jail in this country,” wrote another reader on pantip.com.

tanhy@sph.com.sg