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Anti-graft fight another major political casualty

While anti-govt protest highlights deep-rooted graft, politicisation will make it more difficult to combat this scourge

Last year, the second phase of the National Anti-Corruption Commission's road map began. The five-year plan, which followed five mostly fruitless years of the first stage, looked good on paper but the country's volatile politics not only overshadowed but also threatened it. If the deep national divide is the biggest casualty of the political crisis, the fight against graft comes in a close second.

Needless to say, opinions about corruption have been deeply divided and the current political strife has made them even more so. Two key elements for success in fighting corruption - strong political will and strong public awareness - have been under threat to say the least. While it can be argued that the current anti-government protest has highlighted the problem of rampant, deep-rooted graft, politicisation of this national scourge means genuine, impartisan measures still seem remote.

The first phase of the NACC action plan sought to foster public conscience against corruption, mobilise all social sectors against the problem, and make sure that independent measures are well ingrained in the political system and are used effectively. It has been all but successful, as the latest world transparency table still has Thailand languish at 88th place.

The main problems are lack of political will and poor cooperation among agencies. The NACC has also been hit by a human resource crisis, with thousands of cases virtually going nowhere.

The second phase is basically a follow-up. The NACC wants to cement the public conscience and boost efficiency and cooperation. That sounds simple but is proving extremely difficult. With the NACC now sucked into the political stand-off between the caretaker Yingluck administration and its opponents, its work will be scrutinised under a political microscope.

In countries that succeed in combating corruption, the graft busters work in an environment where their jobs have little or nothing to do with political strife. They also work with the least complicated rules or code of conduct. What constitutes corruption in countries that succeed in fighting it is very simple. In some countries, officials cannot socialise with people whose businesses could result in conflict of interest. The lines between right and wrong are totally blurred in Thailand, and politics has compounded the situation.

Many researchers have identified the main cause of Thailand's massive corruption as the collective ignorance of "small things" like paying small bribes to traffic police to save one's time or using undue influence to get a job or place in a school. Another major cause is the national belief that we must pay back whoever we are indebted to or help out our acquaintances.

Small handouts lead to bigger things. Many years ago, a politician showed off a luxurious car given to him by Thaksin Shinawatra. It's not a shame - let alone a crime - if you help out someone or get help from someone when playing by the rules could have rendered a different result. If Thaksin's supporters are wrong about many things, they are right about their claims that other people "are also doing it".

In fact, the "others are doing it" claim illustrates the best reason why it is very hard to eliminate corruption from Thailand. It completes the picture. We begin with "small things", and then find excuses for doing bigger things that are wrong. When it is widespread, instead of trying to halt it or fix it, everyone jumps on the bandwagon for fear of missing out.

The NACC's campaign is much tougher now. That corruption is, again, at the centre-stage of a political showdown doesn't mean the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter. Can politics get out of the way? The answer is revealing itself in front of our very eyes.


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