BANGKOK – The premise for General Prayuth Chan-ocha taking control of Thailand in May 2014 was to avoid civil conflict and to once and for all rid the country of corruption.
The promise to clean up the country isn’t exactly new, it’s been used by successive governments and it’s generally welcomed because this is one problem which most Thais would like to see solved. As the junta came to power those people who supported the coup had high hopes General Prayuth Chan-ocha and the generals would be able to deliver on this promise.
It’s now six months since Yingluck Shinawatra’s government was ousted and this is a good opportunity to look back to see how far Prayuth’s government has progressed in its attempts to wipe out corruption in the Kingdom.
One of the first actions of the junta was ensuring that the farmers who had been left out of pocket by the rice-pledging scheme were compensated. This action was an important move by the junta to appease rural farmers, many of whom had voted for Yingluck’s government. The rice-pledging scheme was a monumental failure that incurred loses of over 500 billion baht (US$15.25 billion).
Not only was it mismanaged, but there are also strong indications of corruption throughout the scheme. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) claims that 3 million tons of rice went missing. There have also been claims that cheap rice was brought in from neighbouring countries and sold to the Thai government for well above market rates.
The investigation into corruption in the rice-pledging scheme is being led by the NACC and they are looking to bring charges against Yingluck. The junta’s quick response to confronting corruption in the rice-pledging scheme helped support their argument that they were running the country to put things straight.
Another area in which the Junta’s efforts against corruption have been well publicized is illegal land sales and land encroachment. In total, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has seized 50,000 rai (80 square kilometers) of land nationwide with Sukothai, Lampang, Phuket and Krabi provinces being particularly targeted. Some of these land encroachment cases have also resulted in the destruction of illegal buildings, homes and holiday resorts.
Thailand’s most famous tourist resorts have been targeted in the NCPO’s crackdown on corruption. The illegal auctioning of beach space around Phuket made the news in September when it was discovered the Mayor of Karon was directly linked. Elsewhere in Phuket the former Mayor of Patong was arrested for his involvement in illegal taxi services on the island. The corruption which was uncovered in Phuket appears to occur at other beach resorts as well, including Samui, Cha Am and Chonburi, where public beaches are leased out to the ‘sunbed mafia’, but these other locations have yet to experience the same clampdown as Phuket.
The Royal Thai Police is another agency that has come under scrutiny as Thailand’s leaders look to clean up the country’s image. Eliminating the ‘bribes for jobs’ culture is seen as an essential step to eliminate corruption in the police force and the NCPO is keen to do this, however there hasn’t been any evidence of progress just yet.
Over the past six months, the police have been keen to show their cooperation in tackling corruption and a number of corrupt police officers have been arrested and paraded in front of the media. In one case a high ranking police office in northern Thailand who had been trafficking narcotics was arrested in Chiang Rai, with over 160 million baht (US$4.9 million) worth of methamphetamine seized. There have also been arrests of police involved in gambling operations and other illegal activities, but most of these have been low or mid-ranking officers.
There was even a controversial attempt to bring an end to corruption amongst traffic police. In October an initiative to stop traffic police accepting bribes was introduced whereby traffic police would receive a reward of 10,000 baht (US$305) if they refused to accept bribes from road users. Within days a number of drivers attempting to bribe police officers were apprehended and the traffic police were rewarded accordingly.
The initiative drew criticism from various sectors and is now under review. The problem is that making cash ‘payments’ to traffic police has been very much a way of life for Thai road users for generations and to suddenly turn the system on its head and expect corruption to disappear overnight is simply unrealistic. Furthermore, offering police ‘rewards’ not to accept bribes is hardly an effective method in the fight against corruption. If this is an example of the approach that Thailand is going to take to rid the country of corruption, I’m not particularly confident that things will get better.
The difficulty with attempting to rid Thailand of corruption is that this way of doing things is so embedded in the nation’s culture. An entrepreneur from Bangkok once summarised corruption in Thailand for me, “corruption – it’s just how things gets done”. At the time I found these comments amusing but on reflection the truth makes for a rather depressing reality.
Corruption in Thailand occurs at all levels; on the roads, in schools, government offices, police stations – even victims of crime can be encouraged to indulge in corruption in order that their case be given greater priority. It’s a way of speeding things up, untangling the bureaucratic red tape. If you want your shipment to get through customs quickly, need a permit for your business, want to develop some land, or even get your child into one of the best government schools, you have to remember that money talks.
Speaking on the topic of corruption, Chalermchai Boonyaleepun, president of Srinakharinwirot University recently told a seminar that corruption had become a part of the Thai mindset.
If this is true, and evidence does seem to support Chalemchai’s pessimistic opinion, then is the junta really tackling this problem effectively?
Well, so far it looks like Prayuth and the NCPO are doing little more than just scratching the surface. The rice-pledging scheme, land encroachment, a few crooked cops and Phuket’s ‘sunbed mafia’ – important in their own right but not exactly a definitive end to corruption. We’ve really only seen the tip of the iceberg.
Along with making a slow start to ridding the country of corruption, events over the past six months have also tarnished the NCPO’s image as guardians of integrity. The purchase of 192 microphones, which reportedly cost 145,000 baht each, to upgrade the sound system in the cabinet meeting room was rather an embarrassing revelation which raised a few eyebrows.
This was followed by the disclosure of the personal wealth accumulated by ministers serving in Prayuth’s cabinet. Members of this new government have certainly benefitted from the country’s prosperity over the past couple of decades. It was particularly interesting to learn that eight military officers had each accumulated personal wealth in excess of US$1 million, impressive achievements for individuals who have spent their career serving in the armed forces.
With corruption rife across the nation where do you begin? Who sets the agenda? What determines which cases should be investigated? Is everyone open to investigation? Why were some beach resorts cleaned up while others are ignored? Why are the investigations into land encroachment more focused on particular areas of the country than others?
If corruption is part of the Thai mindset, who can confirm that the officials directing the corruption investigations are working transparently? In order to convince the public that the NCPO’s attempts to rid the country are genuine, they are will need to dramatically step up efforts and prove that their war on corruption is targeted at everyone, regardless of connections or political affiliations.
Furthermore, rather than just dealing with today’s corruption the NCPO needs to challenge the culture of corruption and put effective systems in place to tackle corruption in the long term. In order to genuinely do this they would need to start by increasing government transparency. The foundation of multiple ‘watchdog’ organizations would also assist in tackling corruption from multiple perspectives. Formal processes to report and investigate corruption by trusted independent parties would also give people the confidence to report corruption. Educating today’s youth that corruption, in all its forms, is wrong and detrimental to the country would be another important start.
Realistically, ridding Thailand of corruption is a monumental task; nothing short of a paradigm shift in the nation’s consciousness and something that would take at best a generation. So while the NCPO’s crackdown on pockets of corruption is welcome, a lot more effort is needed if they are to even come close to fulfilling their promise.
By Saksith Saiyasombut