Mr Somchai was ordered by the cabinet to serve as secretary-general of the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), a role perceived to command less respect as it focuses on policy-making.
He was to replace Porametee Vimolsiri, who was made the new permanent secretary at the Social Development Ministry.
Former permanent secretary Puttipat Lertchaowasit was temporarily dismissed from the civil service pending a probe as he faces an investigation into the widespread embezzlement of financial aid for the destitute.
Asked whether he would stop Mr Somchai from stepping down, the premier responded: “What would I stop? Why?”
Responding to reports Mr Somchai was unhappy with his transfer to the NESDB, Gen Prayut said: “Who was he unhappy with? Can civil servants express discontent? If that is the case, they cannot be civil servants.”
He insisted there is no rift within the government, adding: “If anyone wants to leave, just do it.”
Finance Minister Apisak Tantivorawong said Mr Somchai signed his resignation letter on April 5, five days before the cabinet approved his transfer. Mr Apisak said he just received the letter yesterday (Apr 11).
Mr Somchai also resigned as chairman of the board of directors at Krung Thai Bank Plc, according to the minister.
“I can confirm this transfer is not a political issue,” Mr Apisak said. “It is the matter of the country where a suitable person was sought to serve as the NESDB secretary-general, to follow through on the 20-year national strategy.”
The minister said he notified Mr Somchai about his transfer when the permanent secretary attended the Asean Finance Ministers’ Meeting in Singapore earlier this month. The intention, Mr Apisak said, was to bring in Mr Somchai to help put the national strategy into practice as he was seen capable of doing the task.
Mr Somchai, however, refused to take up the new position, saying he wanted to stay where he was, according to the minister.
He said the government wanted to move Mr Somchai to the NESDB to help move the country forward.
“But he may have felt belittled as he might have thought the new position was too small for him,” said Mr Apisak.
He insisted Mr Somchai never had any conflicts at work with him or Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, in charge of economic affairs. Some of the work may have made slow progress but this is not unusual in the civil service.
According to the minister, Mr Somchai asked for his resignation to be effective on May 1. Before the date, he requested to take leave until the end of the month.
Meanwhile, Social Development Minister Anantaporn Kanjanarat said Mr Somchai’s resignation would not affect the cabinet resolution that transferred Mr Porametee to serve as permanent secretary at the ministry, he said, noting he believes the cabinet would not retract the order.
The minister said he is close to Mr Porametee. The new permanent secretary is likely to streamline the Social Development Ministry more quickly, he noted. He admitted the transfer of an outsider to serve as the ministry’s permanent secretary would affect morale among ministry officials, but there was a need to pursue the matter to regain the public's confidence after embezzlement scandal.
Former energy minister Pichai Naripthaphan, of the Pheu Thai Party, lashed out at the government’s move to transfer Mr Somchai and Mr Porametee, who he said have strong economic knowledge at a level hard to find among officials. The move showed the government does not pay attention to officials’ capabilities, but rather focuses on individuals who are their allies, he said. The move would also demoralise officials in the ministries concerned, Mr Pichai added.
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