Rice verdict and the shortcomings of Thai democracy

opinion August 30, 2017 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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Yingluck Shinawatra’s disappearance has clouded the serious matter of how election platforms should be conceived, how they should become state policies and how such policies should be implemented.



The national divide, cranked even wider by her flight from Thailand, has ensured that deeply polarised Thais will continue to be distracted from the only thing they can actually agree on.

That’s what politics does. It takes your attention away from issues that truly count, or elase blurs very simple questions. Yes, Yingluck’s trial was divisive and yes, her no-show on verdict day has probably made it more so. Opinions are also split over whether former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom and other defendants deserve punishments that are undeniably harsh. But if we take away politics, the sight of once powerful people now crammed into a prison van after being found guilty of corruption might give every Thai a completely different feeling.

One side may insist that Boonsong and Co were political victims. But to do so convincingly, it must to credibly refute the court’s ruling that the defendants were guilty of a corruption scheme centred on a rice buyer with dubious political connections. Evidence the court considered included the status of the buyer, payment methods and the conspicuous route of rice it bought and sold. How the suspects were put on trial may be controversial, but it’s up to them to dispute the evidence, because questioning the proceedings won’t get them anywhere.

Millions of tonnes of rice bought from farmers under the price-pledging scheme that was purportedly supposed to cushion low prices were sold to the buyer in question, who the court insisted did not represent the Chinese government. This charge is one that needs to be challenged by the suspects, who also have to answer the key questions of why the “Chinese government buyer” paid money through numerous Thai cashier cheques and why the rice bought was resold in Thailand instead of in China or other parts of the world.

Speaking on a televised political talk show, one legal expert rightly pointed out that the trials of Yingluck, Boonsong and the other defendants were not a campaign against the rice scheme. He said it was no the judges’ duty to decide whether an election platform was good or bad or whether a state policy should have been implemented or not. Instead, the trials focused on allegations of corruption in a government project.

 Not once in the verdict against Boonsong and Co did the judges discredit the rice scheme, the expert remarked. The ruling focused on the suspects’ role in the Yingluck government’s attempts to resell rice it bought from farmers. The trial traced the contracts approved by Boonsong’s committee, and the judges found serious irregularities. As for Yingluck’s case, whose verdict has been postponed because of her disappearance, the judges had to decide on whether or how much she was involved in the irregularities, and/or whether her claimed responses to corruption warnings were sufficient. She was not on trial for implementing a policy from her party’s election platform, the expert said.

Debate will be endless if one asks whether such trials should take place under military rule, or whether they were possible when the Yingluck government was in power. The debate will be significantly shorter if the question is whether state officials responsible for corruption in a government mega-project should be brought to justice.

Yingluck’s flight from justice (she might say “injustice”) may affect Thailand’s political course in the long run, but what really counts is that the country has a system in which influential suspects are tried and judged for what they do, not who they are. Without that kind of system, democracy is useless. In other words, any democracy without such a system is vulnerable if not totally fake.

Under the new Constitution, electoral platforms will be checked by the Election Commission. This is a new provision, so there could be drawbacks, but the proclaimed purpose is that politicians should not “over-advertise” at the expense of state budget or bureaucratic management. The Senate has also been given the responsibility of scrutinising state policies that emerge from election pledges.

Is that a good thing? Not in a strong democracy where checks and balances are robust, where elected politicians don’t seek to protect their corrupt peers, and where the goal is serving the public interest, not winning an advertising war. Unelected officials should not have the power to screen “what the people want” as well as “what the people need” as long as elected officials can do that job honestly. 

Political reconciliation may be impossible. But whether you are a red shirt or a yellow shirt or a whistle-mob member or strictly neutral, take away politics and you probably need the same thing. You need an election platform created for the country’s best interests and implemented transparently and honestly for the country’s best interests. This is something a lot more important than the question of where Yingluck will end up.