Student protesters at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University recently unfurled a series of hand-lettered banners in their political science department. “When injustice reigns, life is lost,” read one. “#BOYCOTTRedBull,” said another.
The slogan reflected anger among Thais after prosecutors dropped a hit-and-run driving charge against Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya, an heir to the Red Bull fortune who was at the wheel of a Ferrari that killed a policeman in 2012. The 35-year-old is a grandson of Red Bull co-founder Chaleo Yoovidhya, whose family control 51 per cent of the energy drink company and have a net worth of $20.2bn, according to Forbes.
Thailand’s attorney-general this week recommended reopening the long-running case that has sparked a public uproar over flaws in the justice system, alleged corruption and claims that the kingdom’s richest people enjoy impunity.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha also endorsed an independent investigation of the actions of prosecutors and police.
Thais live in one of the world’s 10 most unequal societies in terms of wealth distribution, according to the Thailand Development Research Institute, a think-tank. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the kingdom’s wealth divide by putting millions of poorer people out of work.
In the eight years since the accident, Mr Vorayuth has managed to avoid appearing in court because he was abroad. The time limit for three of the five criminal charges he originally faced has expired. His current whereabouts are unknown but photographs of him in Knightsbridge appeared in British newspapers in 2017.
“This case makes people feel that rich men, men with the right connections with authorities, can get away with crimes, and poor men become the victims and the suspects,” said Rosana Tositrakul, a political activist and former Bangkok senator.
The furore has coincided with an incipient student movement against the kingdom’s lack of political freedoms and limited opportunities for young people.
“We have never seen this kind of public outcry over the justice system,” said Munin Pongsapan, dean of the law faculty at Thammasat University, who sits on Mr Prayuth’s investigating committee.
“There have been so many issues that divided public opinion, but in this case people are united: they share the common opinion that something is wrong with the justice system in our country.”
The controversy has prompted the Yoovidhyas to distance themselves from the suspect. “Mr Vorayuth Yoovidhya has never assumed any role in the management and daily operations of TCP Group, was never a shareholder, nor has he held any executive position within TCP Group,” they said in a statement on the family company’s website.
Mr Vorayuth has admitted hitting policeman Wichean Klunprasert, whose body was dragged for dozens of metres by his Ferrari. However, he claimed that the policeman’s motorcycle had cut in front of him.
After a criminal investigation was opened, an expert witness estimated that Mr Vorayuth was driving at more than 170kph. However, in 2016, some witnesses changed their testimonies, saying the car was travelling at less than 80kph.
In 2019, Thai prosecutors ordered a new police investigation, and two new witnesses were introduced. One of them, Jaruchart Maadthong, died in a motorcycle accident last month, prompting many Thais to question the timing of his death. Mr Prayuth has ordered an autopsy to be carried out.
In recent days, the investigation team of the Office of the Attorney-General revealed for the first time that cocaine was found in Mr Vorayuth’s blood. However, police said they did not press drugs charges at the time of the accident because the substance was administered as part of dental treatment — a claim that caused widespread derision and angry ripostes from Thai dentists.
The case is now the subject of probes by the public prosecutor, police and as well as parliament and the independent panel endorsed by Mr Prayuth.
“Within the legal community, everyone is saying this is the best chance to reform the criminal justice system,” said Mr Munin.
“I’m beginning to see the benefits of the Red Bull case because it’s like stripping bare the damned justice system in the public square,” Twitter account holder @Tosna19 wrote. “Thank you, Boss.”
Additional reporting by Nang Uraisin
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