Talk of what Prayut Chan-o-cha must do to ensure that his 2014 coup is not “wasted” has been too political. Many, including the man himself, assume the measure of success or failure depends on whether the camp loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra can make its way back into power. That idea is not only wrong, it’s also very damaging.
Underlining a missed opportunity for the junta is the luxury-watch saga involving Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. He was let off the hook last week by the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which bought his explanation that he had borrowed the multimillion-baht collection. Social media erupted in disgust. But that uproar is already dying down, casting doubt on whether the controversial ruling will have any influence on the upcoming election.
The public outcry confirms that Thai people want transparency in politics. That the fervour will be just temporary tells us that although Thais are desperate for political transparency, their enthusiasm is infected by a national trait that mixes ideological partisanship with public integrity. And the fact that analysts appear more concerned over how the NACC ruling will impact the general election shows Thailand is taking the wrong track in its fight against corruption.
Simply put, occasional outcries and brief bouts of anger are useless deterrents. We need to uphold a principle permanently: politicians must be made to realise that corruption is unconditionally unacceptable, no matter who is involved.
Corruption has always been politicised in Thailand. When it involves certain people, it’s a conspiracy. When it involves others, it’s intolerable and has to be dealt with. This is why we get the occasional outcries and brief anger. The idea that any type of corruption is unacceptable is simply missing from our cultural DNA. Missing from our politicians’ genes is the willingness to “take it like a man” when people on their side are hit with damaging charges.
Coup-maker Prayut essentially pledged to change this deep-rooted and prevalent Thai attitude towards corruption. He was supposed to set a new standard, by which well-founded suspicion would be enough to remove anyone from their position, no matter how high or powerful. Whether Prawit is guilty or not does not matter. What matters is that legitimate doubts have arisen, and they will loom over whatever Prawit now does in government. His actions will be met with mistrust regardless of what role he plays in public life. This alone justifies taking action against him.
The coup would not have been “wasted” if Prayut had removed Prawit. Better still, Prawit could have voluntarily resigned and thereby set a new and noble political standard. The deputy prime minister could have said: “I will defend myself in court but I cannot now carry on in a position that requires a great deal of public trust.” Or Prayut could have told his deputy: “Brother, to set a good standard for this country, you must resign. That would be the best action to take for everyone and particularly for the future of our nation.”
That window of opportunity has however slammed shut, and not last week but a long time ago. The NACC will now be viewed with suspicion, its every decision scrutinised for political bias. The NACC is supposed to battle graft, not enemies of the government.
We are back in the vicious circle. Right now, the NACC is perceived as working for the Prayut government, but sooner or later somebody else will be ruling Thailand. Judging from the way it has been functioning, the anti-corruption watchdog will not be neutral. To combat corruption and improve political transparency and integrity, the justice system needs to be both neutral and effective.
There was only one way for Prayut to justify his coup. That was to install a system in which no corruption was tolerated, regardless of its ideological or political source, and whereby reasonable doubt alone was enough to oust suspects from office.
There is no other way. Selective treatment of graft cases can only amplify political conflicts and reinforce the long-standing practice of labelling corruption allegations “conspiracies”. It promotes peer corruption and crackdowns on graft motivated by revenge rather than justice.
Again, Prawit may or may not be guilty, but in a perfect world he would have quit immediately after suspicion arose, or Prayut would have told him to resign a long time ago. In a less perfect but still noble world, the NACC would have ruled that the doubts were justified and more investigation was needed.
These outcomes would damage Prayut’s political status, but showing such responsibility or integrity would boost the health of Thai public life immensely. Prayut might not be able to hold on to his premiership, but his coup would certainly not have been wasted.