How the political divide boosts Thailand’s biggest scourge

opinion September 06, 2017 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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Thais opposed to the planned purchase of submarines are not necessarily against the proposal for a prime ministerial aircraft, our own version of Air Force One.



The same contradiction applies to the Yingluck government’s rice-pledging scheme and the Rajabhakti Memorial Park project built by the military regime. Thais are like football supporters when it comes to corruption – except that sports fanatics don’t drag a whole country down with their extremely partisan attitudes.

It’s the curse of the political divide. Many say the virtually irreconcilable split has been at the expense of the economy, but the biggest casualty has to be the anti-graft campaign, which has become deeply politicised. The justice system, whistle-blowing, political will and social attitudes – the key elements of any successful fight against corruption – have become beset with unhealthy rivalries that have led to culprits receiving privileged protection from those “on the same side”.

The last non-partisan action in this fight came when Democrat powerbroker Sanan Kachornprasart was banned from politics for five years for falsely claiming a Bt15-million debt in a mandatory asset report.

That false dawn saw new checks and balances like the Constitution Court, the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Supreme Court’s section for political office-holders receiving praise from both sides. Fuelling optimism was the Election Commission (EC)’s move to disqualify or suspend several election candidates on charges of vote-buying.

Yes, there was a time when one of the most powerful politicians received a five-year political ban without the investigators or the judges being accused of conspiring against him, and with the money involved nowhere near Bt100 million. And yes, the EC was once credited with high integrity after blocking the ambitions of leading candidates.

Today, the EC is widely ridiculed, the NACC viewed with suspicion, and the Constitution Court and Supreme Court’s section for politicians accused of bias. The once highly regarded mechanism against corruption doesn’t have the credibility it used to have. The constitutional agencies have become like football referees, with the spectators only caring which side is being penalised, not what kind of foul is being committed.

The truth is, even strictly neutral football referees can’t escape criticism. 

This leaves football fans as judge and jury when bad tackles are concerned. In other words, when red cards or penalty kicks cannot eliminate horrible fouls, the fans can. That does not mean they will, though.

Of the key elements for a workable anti-graft system – the judiciary, whistle-blowers, political will and social attitudes – the last is the most important. That is particularly true in the Thai context, where contentious incidents are viewed differently by people in opposing camps.

As we can see, the crucial elements are either weak or virtually non-existent in Thailand. The judiciary has been discredited; whistle-blowers are always accused of harbouring political motives, hence discouraged or directly threatened; political will has never been there; and social attitudes are totally messed up, often dragged down the filthy path of divisive politics.

It’s a lose-lose situation where fighting graft is concerned. If you want to conduct a fishy submarine deal, you know that a large section of the public will not question it since they are firmly on your side. If you want to evade parliamentary scrutiny of mega-deals involving foreigners and perhaps Thai sovereignty, you know a sizeable number of Thais will look the other way because they like you. If there is any opposition to a project, you know you can always “spin” it away.

Some say the political divide provides great checks and balances, because you watch your enemies more closely than your friends. The thing is, keeping your enemies under a microscope means nothing in the fight against corruption if your friends are judged according to a different measure.

One big case after another has come to a climatic end over the past few days. Politics has overshadowed all of them because the verdicts are against one side of the national divide. People look at former commerce minister Boonsong Teriyapirom and see only the Pheu Thai label on his forehead, and at news talk host Sorrayuth Suthassanachinda and judge him based only on his perceived political stance.

Few people really look at the evidence. And for those who do, many ask why similar evidence has not been dug up against others, particularly those on the opposite side. When this question is asked, a legal matter immediately becomes political. 

Simply put, Thais are behaving tribally, like football fans, cheering or condemning rulings based on who committed the foul, not on what kind of foul is committed. This only means bad tackles are bound to happen again. In truth, foul play thrives on this partisan fanaticism. 

To put it another way, corruption has been anything but defeated. If corruption were a person, he would love this kind of situation, and would continue to laugh all the way to the bank.