Why trust is crucial in fight against graft

opinion February 10, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

Prayut’s anti-corruption plan can be house of cards



There’s a lot that’s unfair in politics, but it’s fair to say that Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s luxury wristwatches, whether he actually owns them or not, are damaging to the government’s anti-corruption agenda. The proclaimed goal of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, whose vow to clean up Thai politics was backed up by tightened constitutional rules and a series of penalties against high-level officials deemed corrupt, is suffering a major setback.

The punishment is only one part of the anti-graft campaign. Equally important is that Thailand must achieve a higher standard when it comes to the issue of trust in politicians and nepotism among the powers-that-be. 

Punishing political enemies for corruption is easy and, in fact, it happens all the time, but it will never eradicate graft altogether.

The hardest part has to do with how Thai leaders deal with corruption among their own people, or even handle public doubts concerning their people. 

This is a problem facing every democratically elected government, and is now seriously threatening the Prayut regime. Whether Prawit is innocent is not the key point. The key point is how Prayut deals with Prawit, who is facing a credibility crisis.

There has been widespread talk about why Prayut must not “waste” his coup. If the purification of Thai politics was genuinely his purpose, the coup is already in danger of being wasted. One formidable strength of corruption – its ability to be protected or covered up whenever the powers-that-be are accused – is demonstrated yet again in the wristwatch affair.

By refusing to quit, Prawit has adopted the typical Thai politicians’ response to corruption charges. By protecting him and alluding to “conspiracies” against his government, Prayut risks being deemed no different from those he vowed to clear out of government. In other words, the two of them are in danger of becoming Exhibit A in the argument as to why corruption is so hard to uproot in Thailand.

In this country, few politicians quit because of mere suspicion. Resignation is perceived as a slap in the face to those who appointed them. In truth, resignation or suspension is the best way to create or enhance transparency, whether the accused is actually guilty or not. Prawit should have simply bowed out to preserve trust in the government – or Prayut should have suspended him to set a good example that has been lacking under both democratic and authoritarian rule.

Prayut staged the coup in 2014 purportedly to end a vicious cycle of political violence. He then announced a mission to get rid of another vicious cycle, in which politicians come to office, declare war on corruption, and anyone caught, other than their own people, is punished. When the powers-that-be face graft accusations themselves, it’s decried as a conspiracy, dreamed up in order to bring them down. The regime then collapses under the weight of the scandal, paving the way for others to gain power and declare a war on corruption.

It’s easy to see why corruption thrives in Thailand and is so unbeatable. The problem is treated as political rather than ethical, meaning politics often comes into play when deciding guilt or handling charges. This kind of environment contributes to a woeful lack of trust in government, a situation bad enough for regular leaders. Where Prayut is concerned, the gravity of the trust issue can be tenfold.