Thailand junta suspends Bangkok governor over graft probe

Mr Sukhumbhand Paribatra (in yellow boots) is under investigation for alleged graft.
Mr Sukhumbhand Paribatra (in yellow boots) is under investigation for alleged graft.PHOTO: THE NATION, BANGKOK

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's junta leader used emergency powers on Thursday (Aug 25) to suspend Bangkok's governor while he is probed for corruption, a major blow to the influential city politician who has faced growing censure.

Mr Sukhumbhand Paribatra, a distant relative of Thailand's respected royal family, is under investigation for alleged graft connected to an expensive light display he set up outside city hall in December 2015.

The two-term governor was recently "disowned" by fellow Democrat party members over that case and string of other shady deals, with some MPs calling on the junta to axe him.

The pro-establishment Democrats are traditional allies of the military, which seized power in 2014 after it toppled the opposition Puea Thai Party.

"Although the current investigation is not conclusive yet, it is a high profile case," read the order signed by junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha, adding that the governor would be suspended without pay while the investigation is ongoing.

Mr Sukhumbhand has previously denied the graft allegations and defended the New Year's light installation, saying it attracted tourists and brought some 10 million baht (S$391,644) to local food vendors and shopkeepers.

He was on a trip to South Korea when the junta order was released on Thursday, a spokesman from his office told AFP.

His suspension was issued through Article 44, a controversial law that grants the junta chief sweeping powers to make any executive decision in the name of national security.

Mr Prayut has used the law for a range of purposes since his 2014 power grab, from cracking down on land encroachers to doling out punishment to teenage motorcycle racers.

He has also vowed to clear the kingdom of graft, although his military government is now facing several corruption scandals of its own, including allegations that an army-built park was riddled with kickbacks.

The junta has also severely restrained free speech under its watch and jailed critics who have accused the regime of graft.