The overriding, albeit subtle, idea used to be that politicians, especially those in power, needed some protection against graft charges, or their rivals would play games and allegations would cripple the entire system to the point that nothing else would
That led to Parliament’s corruption-related censure becoming something seasonal, despite the fact that graft is anything but. But even that was just a tiny part of what was wrong with Thailand’s fight against corruption. We have had a dilemma of whether to criminalise this evil entirely or “politicise” it at least partly. On the one hand, corruption is supposed to be a criminal offence, which is why the courts were empowered to play a big role. On the other hand, we had corruption cases decided by Parliament, a situation where “evidence” was not as important as who commanded more votes in the national assembly.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Thai crisis has always featured clashes between Parliament and the courts. With democracy espousing the values of what the majority think, a glaring spotlight was always on what a bunch of judges considered to be right or wrong. Also under scrutiny were the elected politicians themselves, who were accused of using the popular mandate to whitewash what was, when all masks were removed, undeniably fraud. And this was compounded by the next problem.
In our campaigns against corruption, prejudice and bias have infected all sides. In Thailand, the term “justice” is not used to proclaim innocence. Here, “justice” is used to point out that “Other people are doing it, so why pick on me?” This attitude is worrisome, but it stems from the laws or measures not being applied indiscriminately.
To sum it up, practically everyone is to blame for the failure of Thailand’s fight against corruption. Anti-graft enforcement has been selective. Politicians have used democracy as a shield to protect their crimes rather than as a weapon to eradicate the problem. And the last thing that should be politicised became heavily politicised.
It has become a chicken-and-egg situation. For example, the fact that enforcement has been selective has encouraged politicians to hide behind democracy even more.
And the fact that politicians were hiding behind the results of the ballot has galvanised their rivals, leading to legal bias and prejudice.
Entrust courts with the anti-graft battle and we face the question, where’s the indiscriminate application of the law? If Parliament should decide who cheated the country and who did not, who was the last minister who was voted out of office by elected representatives? So, who should “shape up” – the judges, or members of Parliament?
The problems don’t end there, though. And now we come to what is arguably the biggest issue – “the fans”. The fight against corruption has become largely a game. It isn’t supposed to be so, not least because it has spawned hypocrisy, and wherever hypocrisy thrives, so does corruption. Thais should have a common standard on what constitutes corruption, and we can take things from there. But as things stand, we are like football supporters, cheering our team’s harsh tackles or “clever” theatrics while dubbing the other team shameless aggressors or cheats when they do the same.
Divided Thais do have one thing in common, though. We believe that “only others are corrupt”. Meanwhile we can find hundreds of excuses to defend our own actions against charges of graft. You only need one hand to count how many politicians have quit their posts over corruption scandals in the past 30 years.
Again, Thailand is attempting to write new rules that, hopefully, can keep corruption at bay. The problem is, we have tried it all before. We used to entrust Parliament with the anti-graft job, but our hopes of seeing corrupt heads roll regularly off the blocks were never fulfilled. We brought in the judiciary, but it was accused of prejudice and conspiracies. We tried to balance the power of the courts with that of Parliament, and look where that got us. We experimented with “independent bodies”, and they were accused of either being abused by the powers-that-be to silence opponents, or using “undemocratic” means to overthrow the powers-that-be.
To add to our headaches, any new anti-corruption system (if they can come up with something really new) will be deemed by one half of the national divide as favouring the other half. And this future problem is related to all the problems mentioned above. It’s a vicious, seemingly never-ending vortex from which it will require extraordinary strength to extract ourselves.
Unless Thailand comes up with a wholesale change in the collective public mentality and law enforcement, corruption will still win. We will still be left with the unfavourable options of having either absolute power that corrupts absolutely or democratic power that corrupts neatly and perhaps massively. Take your pick of which is the lesser evil, because corruption couldn’t care less and will be grinning triumphantly either way.