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Car crash politics: Laws don't touch rich in Thailand


Police officers look at a motorcycle and Ferrari that were involved in a hit-and-run accident during an investigation at Thong Lor police station in Bangkok, Thailand, on Monday.

BANGKOK, Thailand – Shortly before dawn on Monday in an upscale area of Bangkok, a 27-year-old Thai man driving a Ferrari crashed into a policeman on a motorcycle.  The driver dragged him more than 100 yards along the road before fleeing the scene. The policeman, 47-year-old Sgt. Maj. Wichien Glanprasert, was killed. 

The furious reaction to the incident this week has shown one thing above all: most Thais have no faith in their justice system.

‘I don’t believe in Thai justice’
The driver of the car was Vorayuth Yoovidhya, scion of one of the richest families in Thailand. His grandfather, Chaleo Yoovidhya, founded the Red Bull energy drink empire. Forbes magazine ranked the family as Thailand's fourth richest (not including the royal family) earlier this year with a net worth of $5.4 billion.  

Thais know from long experience that the wealthy are rarely held accountable for their crimes. 

Red Bull heir held over deadly hit-and-run in Ferrari

“As long as you are rich and powerful, you can get away with everything,” said 40-year-old Ubonwan Weeyanond. “I don’t believe in Thai justice, it’s only a privilege for the rich, not for poor people.” 

Vorayuth fled back to his family's compound after the accident – police followed oil streaks for several blocks to the gate of the family mansion.

Str / AFP - Getty Images

Vorayuth Yoovidhya, the 27-year-old grandson of late Red Bull founder Chaleo Yoovidhaya, during the police investigation on Monday.

The family then enlisted the help of local police official Lt. Col. Pannapon Nammuang to concoct a tale that somebody else – the family driver – had been at the wheel when the accident happened, according to Bangkok police.

But online outrage forced the police to change their tune.

Bangkok’s top police official, Lt. Gen. Comronwit Toopgrajank sidelined Pannapon (who denied wrongdoing, but admitted knowing the family well) and declared he would bring the culprit to justice.

"We will not let this police officer die without justice. Believe me," Comronwit said Tuesday. "The truth will prevail in this case. I can guarantee it."

Vorayuth was charged with causing death by reckless driving and escaping arrest by police, but was released on $16,000 bail Tuesday.

Comronwit said that Pannapon, the officer who allegedly tried to cover up the crime, could be fired and brought up on criminal charges, according to a Bangkok Post report on Wednesday.

‘Do they think people are stupid?’
Still, Thais remain skeptical that the wealthy young man will see the inside of a prison cell.

“Thai police often make someone a scapegoat.  They should not cover up the case because how many people in this country have a Ferrari?” said Varattaya Intarakong, a 38-year-old business owner. “Do they think people are stupid? But I believe that this guy will not be jailed.”

This wouldn’t be the first time the child of a wealthy and influential Thai person got off without punishment after committing a crime.

In a notorious case in December 2010, a 16-year-old girl driving a Honda Civic without a license collided with a passenger van that spun out of control. Nine people were killed in the crash. But the girl who caused the crash came from a privileged family and received only a two-year suspended sentence. 

‘Teach him how to be responsible’
Vorayuth's case has generated particular anger because he failed to stop to help the policeman, and tried to get a member of his family's staff to take the blame instead.

Several Thais commented online that people who try to shift the blame onto a scapegoat should not be granted bail.

The dead policeman's brother, Pornanand Glanprasert, said he's particularly bitter about Vorayuth's failure to stop and help.

“I can't accept how the driver hit my brother and sped away. If he hit him and got out of the car immediately, my brother might have survived,” said Pornanand. “When I realized that he’s a son of well-known people, I want his family to teach him how to be responsible, not run away like this.”

‘Double standards’
The issue of "double standards" for the wealthy and privileged is highly politically charged in Thailand. Many Thais argue that the courts sell justice to the highest bidder, and the tattered reputation of Thailand's judiciary has sunk even lower in recent years due to several clumsy political interventions by the courts. 

But the prospects for things to improve appear dim. The current Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung was himself involved in an infamous case a decade ago when several witnesses saw his son, Duang Yubumrung, murder a policeman in a nightclub with a pistol.

Duang went on the run for months, the family invented a mysterious scapegoat who they claimed was actually to blame, and witnesses began changing their testimony -- suddenly declaring that perhaps Duang was not the shooter after all.

When he came out of hiding, Duang was cleared of murder, and despite widespread public revulsion, the distasteful saga did not damage his father's political career.

Ferraris and fiery crashes around Asia
Monday's incident is just the latest in a series of Ferrari crashes in Asia that have exposed national political divisions.

In Singapore, where many residents are concerned about the level of immigration, particularly from mainland China, there was widespread outrage over an accident in May. A wealthy Chinese man crashed his Ferrari at high speed into a taxi, killing himself, the taxi driver and a Japanese woman who was a passenger in the taxi. 

And in China an explosive story concerning another Ferrari crash is creating a political storm in Beijing.

The South China Morning Post reported this week that a Ferrari crash in March -- which was swiftly covered up -- killed Ling Gu, the 23-year-old son of one of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s most trusted aides, Ling Jihua.  

The younger Ling was allegedly driving recklessly with two semi-naked girls when the crash happened, leaving one of them paralyzed, according the newspaper.

The newspaper says his father's political career was damaged by his attempts to cover up the crash. Perhaps it’s a sign that even China's powerful have less impunity than Thailand's wealthy.

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