Of all people, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan shouldn’t have been surprised by the public uproar over the latter’s luxury wristwatches. In politics, transparency has to do with doubts as much as facts. You can’t keep governing effectively when you are the centre of suspicion, whether you’re innocent or not.
Probably it’s not fair, but Prayut staged a coup against the Yingluck government first and put the former prime minister and some of her Cabinet members on trial for alleged corruption later.
The same “principle” should apply where Prawit is concerned. Once serious doubts mount, the man first has to go, and then he can start trying to prove his innocence.
Since his controversial rise to power, Prayut has prioritised a campaign against corruption.
To be successful, he must first realise that the problem is not just about crooks receiving bribes or awarding lucrative projects to their own networks. There are the same people everywhere, but it is particularly hard in Thailand to tackle the issue exactly because of the kind of pro-Prawit attitudes on the government side.
Thailand’s vicious cycle goes like this: Powerful politicians start by declaring war on corruption, and anyone except their own people are punished. Once those in power face graft accusations themselves, they decry a “conspiracy”, saying the charges were cooked up in order to bring them down.
The powerful politicians then will collapse under the weight of massive scandals, giving way for a new bunch to come in and declare a fresh war on corruption. On and on it has been going.
If fighting corruption is all about finding out what your enemies do or did and penalising them, anyone can conquer graft, because that is super easy. The hard part is how to deal with corruption among your own people, or even doubts concerning your own people. This is a problem facing every democratically elected government, and it’s now seriously threatening the Prayut regime.
Thais are well aware of this problem, judging from the campaigns against Prawit, which are organised regardless of political ideology. In protecting Prawit, Prayut gave mainstream politicians solid ammunition with which to attack his coup and anti-graft agenda.
The prime minister denounces some of those attacking Prawit as being politically motivated, but the prime minister has no one to blame but himself for the politicisation of the wristwatch affair.
In a way, Prawit has succeeded where Prayut has failed. The deputy prime minister has dissolved all the political colours, at least where he is concerned. Many people who had never been united before are now joining hands in an attempt to force him out of the Cabinet. More importantly, Prawit has brought attention to the real reason why corruption is so hard to eradicate in Thailand.
By refusing to leave the Cabinet, Prawit has typified Thai politicians’ basic response to corruption charges or doubts. In this country, nobody quits because of mere suspicion. Resignations can make those who appoint them lose face, but failures to resign have led to greater losses. Thailand has seen protests against corruption turn ugly simply because the accused wouldn’t budge, but a bigger price of nepotism is the invincibility of corruption.
Fighting graft is about setting a high standard. Low standards include those conspiracy claims, which allow the accused to stay on in their posts, demand legal or parliamentary convictions, which are all but impossible, or have their bosses transfer them to other positions.
Prayut and Prawit are contributing to a low standard. They may think they are doing the right thing, but they actually are feeding the fundamentally wrong attitude that’s plagued this country for a very long time. Whether they know it or not, the two are not helping make matters more transparent and they are mocking all the TV ads that seek to make people ashamed of nepotism or bribes.
Luxury watches may sound trivial, but the big uproar over them means Thais know how small, unattended cases can lead to bigger, more damaging ones. In fact, the political crisis rocking this country has one root in tolerance of “friendly” corruption. It entails the accused politicians’ reliance on conspiracy claims instead of being ashamed of their deeds, the belief that resignation constitutes guilt, and the public attitude that graft on one side is more acceptable than graft on the other.
Prayut has proclaimed a noble agenda. Some have lauded it while others have mocked it, and both views have been understandable. Now the mocking side is expanding, and that is understandable too. In Thailand, graft has been part of a political game rather than considered a perilous national scourge. If things go on like this, there is only one eventual winner – the corruption itself.