BANGKOK – The Thai military government has been generating headlines in its campaign against corruption. The stated goal of this past year’s protest against the previous government was to root out corruption in Thailand. The anti-corruption movement seems to come around with every new government. Will the new military government be able permanently change Thailand’s culture of bribery and favoritism?
There are multiple laws that deal with the issue. Section 143 of the Thai Penal Code deals with politicians and government officials demanding or accepting bribes in return for using their influence for “the advantage or disadvantage of any person.” Section 144 of the Thai Penal Code deals with people who are giving or offering a bribe to a government official or politician. Section 148, 149, and 150 of the Thai Penal Code deals with politicians or government officials who use their office for a personal benefit. In conjunction with the Thai Penal Code, there have been many laws enacted to increase oversight and transparency of the Thai government.
In addition to the laws, there are several quasi-government agencies that are independent of the Thai government. The State Audit Commission verifies government accounts to ensure their transparency and accuracy. The Election Commission has the power to investigate any irregularities with elections.
The Ombudsmen of the National Embassy investigate complaints made by citizens against the government. The National Anti-Corruption Commission reviews, investigates, and prosecutes accusations of unethical behavior, bribery, and self-dealing by politicians and civil servants. And the National Human Rights Commission investigates the abuse of rights which was protected by the Constitution.
However, Thailand’s corruption problem is not a simple issue of people breaking the law. Bribery and favoritism is product of multiple aspects of Thailand’s history, culture, and economics. It is difficult to enforce laws when violating bribery laws has become part of the regular business practice.
In Thailand, people routinely exchange gifts to each other to cement relationships. When friends see each other, they exchange baskets of food or small gifts. It is part of the social aspect of building a network of friends. When a government official provides a service, Thais will sometimes give the government official a small gift for gratitude. Many Thais see this as a show of respect and not bribery.
Secondly, police officers and civil servants are relatively low paid. Those who do not hold a bachelors degree can be paid less than the minimum wage. Many people will offer a little money to get their permit processed faster or for the police officer to ignore a traffic violation. Civil servants and police officers depend on these additional payments to supplement their income. Those who pay the additional payments do not view this as bribery but payment for convenience.
The lack of the rule of law is a third component to Thailand’s corruption culture. Thailand has gone through 19 coups in the modern era. There have been debates as to the cause of the lack of the rule of law – general political instability or the multiple attempts at overthrowing a government. However, the result is that when the rule of law has been degraded. In Thailand, the people that you know is important because regulations are flexible.
While the national government attempts to deal with instances of high level corruption, it is difficult to change Thai culture and more bribery laws will not increase enforcement. The issue is that the bureaucratic process for some government services is so time consuming and complex that many Thai people resort to cash payments to move the process along.
An option to reduce bribery and favoritism is to minimize the human element of issuing permits and reduce bureaucratic requirements by submitting applications through the use of technology. In addition, public servants and police officers should be paid well to the extent that the taking of “supplemental payments” is not required for survival. Reducing instances where gifts or supplemental payments can be made is easier than trying to change Thai culture.
By Mr. Robert R. Virasin
Our licensed Thai lawyers at Siam Legal International in Bangkok have valuable knowledge in dealing with government agencies in Thailand, and this experience is of great importance when dealing with Thai legal cases and investigative service.