AIS spat latest symptom of our diseased politics

opinion March 01, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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The corrupting influence of business interests is being laid bare once again as the telecom company comes under attack for old links with Thaksin

That telecom giant AIS must publicly deny it has business links with the Shinawatra family is a small irony. Thaksin Shinawatra always proclaimed respect for 1997’s “People’s Constitution”, so his former company having to publicly distance itself from the ex-premier does the now-defunct charter scant justice. Simply put, if that Constitution had been honesty upheld, AIS would not have been in this awkward, if not embarrassing, situation.
People say the 1997 Constitution was strong on rights and liberty. That’s just half the story. The charter’s essence was its anti-corruption mechanism, based on strengthened checks and balances and tough rules against conflicts of interests. AIS, almost sounding desperate, insisted that it has had nothing to do with the Shinawatras since 2006, but apparently it has yet to convince many subscribers.
There is no need to recall the controversies involving the sale of Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek. It was what Thaksin did in his early days as prime minister that prompted questions about massive business interests mixed with political power. Thaksin became the premier in extreme defiance of the constitutional provisions regarding conflict of interest, but his landslide election victory overshadowed the anxiety, and the rest is history.
The current campaign against AIS could be legitimate, or it might be a political ploy. Either way, it highlights Thailand’s failure to abide by the crucial will of the 1997 charter. Had the constitutional prohibitions been taken seriously, the AIS declaration would not have been necessary.
The 1997 Constitution was enacted because the country seemed unable to cope with two major problems. The first was insufficient public participation in politics. The second was massive corruption, which was often attributed to politicians holding interests in business firms – openly or secretly. The charter’s drafters wanted its intentions on these two issues to be equally respected. As it turned out, the drafters were just dreaming.
On assuming political office, Thaksin transferred his Shin Corp shares to his son. That was the closest thing he did to observing constitutional rules on conflict of interest. It was not enough, obviously. Panthongtae Shinawatra was too young at the time, and what the Thaksin government did regarding the telecom industry was extremely dubious, to say the least. Liberalisation of the industry was delayed. And when something had to be done regarding liberalisation, Shin Corp allegedly benefited from government moves.
When Shin was sold to the Singaporeans there was an outcry because the Shinawatras paid no tax on the deal. The ambiguous share-ownership of suspected nominees of the Shinawatras was noted. Some of these featured in the share-concealment case Thaksin faced, and survived, at the very beginning of his tenure as prime minister.
If the current campaign against AIS is unfair, so was the treatment of the 1997 constitutional rules on conflict of interest. After all, the rules were to be strictly followed, not dodged.
AIS can blame Suthep Thaugsuban and his movement, but the telecom firm should also point its finger at those who failed to respect the 1997 charter. What’s happening is a hard lesson, especially for countries like Thailand, where politics and business interests can only corrupt one another.