Crime and punishment: they apply to govt as much as to individuals

opinion February 13, 2014 00:00

By Pornpimol Kanchanalak

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Left in its natural state, human life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", claimed English political thinker Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Philosophers before and after theorised about the social contract to explain how "wild" man surrenders some

In the generally accepted modern definition of democracy, that legitimacy is derived from the popular perception that the elected government will abide by democratic principles in governing, and thus, through public trust, be legally accountable to its people.  
In Thailand, that trust has now been desecrated. Evidence of blatant and repeated illegal and illegitimate acts on the part of government call into question its legitimacy in continuing to govern us.
The purpose of taxation, as part of the political contract, is to fund government machinery that will improve citizens’ lives and security both in the short and long terms. While citizens have a duty under the law to pay taxes, the government has a duty, also by law, to spend taxpayers’ money judicially, impartially and lawfully, and to avoid negative consequences or unintended bad results in the process.
Over the years, our tax money has been wasted and rendered unproductive due to an ever-increasing breadth and depth of corruption. But never in recent memory has it been squandered so systematically and with such profligacy as it has been under the rice-pledging scheme of the current government.
The Bt800 billion the government has wasted on this populist policy dwarfs the total amount pilfered by politicians who at various times and in various ways dipped their filthy hands into the coffers of our hard-earned money. Worst of all, it has not helped the intended beneficiaries – farmers. Most of them say their debts are higher since the rice scheme began.  
Instead of inanely buying every grain of rice – not necessarily all produced by Thai farmers, and certainly not by the poorest Thai farmers – the government should have adopted a partial pledge (30 per cent of total production), similar to the programme first initiated by prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda in the 1980s.  At that time, when good governance still retained some value, the price the government set for its purchase was 80 per cent of the market price (intended to serve as a cushion during a time of falling prices) – not the 40-45 per cent over the market price at which this government has been buying. Under the Prem administration, farmers were required to withdraw their pledged rice once the market price rose.
According to the latest report by the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), the richest 20 per cent of rice farmers produce 42 per cent of the total rice supply in the market. Meanwhile, the 2.59 million poorest rice-growing households do not produce enough grain to join the programme.
Granted all that, if the government’s real intention was to help our farmers, it should have spent our tax money on things that would assist the sector towards sustainability, such as research and development, irrigation, transportation, financial management, cooperatives and agriculture education. These efforts have multiplier effects that have the power to eventually lift poor farmers out of poverty. Funding for these longer-term measures should have been accompanied by several sensible short-term measures to alleviate the farmers’ debt burden.
Well-intended and honest warnings on the catastrophic effects of this programme on the nation’s economy fell on deaf ears. If this does not represent a dereliction of the government’s constitutional duty, then nothing is, no matter how flagrant.
As a result, our public debt per GDP has jumped from 40.3 per cent in 2011 to 44.7 per cent in 2012, and rising. Our current account was in the black at 1.20 per cent of GDP in 2011, but has then dipped to a deficit of 0.40 per cent in 2012 – projected to plunge further to 2.46 per cent in 2013.
The rice scheme is a crime against the entire country, and all the citizens who in good faith place their livelihood and their tax money in the hands of the government.
But instead of accepting culpability, the government has launched “McCarthy-style” accusations against those who woke up to the cruel reality of the vaporisation of their and the nation’s wealth, and to a darkening future, and came out onto the streets. The government’s practice of applying the law only when and where it suits its purpose is egregious. Naming the financial backers of political dissent and threatening them with prosecution recalls the Salem witch trials depicted in Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”. In the US, McCarthyism – the practice of bringing accusations of disloyalty and subversion against dissenters – was aided by the FBI under J Edgar Hoover. The Thai government’s witch-hunt is being aided by our own would-be Hoovers in the DSI (Department of Special Investigation).
Back in 2005, a court ordered the former Bank of Thailand governor, Rerngchai Marakanond, to pay back Bt180 billion plus 7.5 interest, or face the seizure of his personal assets for negligence that plunged the country into its worst financial crisis. Regardless of where one stands on the issue, credit must be given to Rerngchai for braving humiliation, going through the judicial process and accepting his punishment as an honourable man.  He didn’t try to pin the blame on anyone else. He knew that as the man at the top, the responsibility was his.
Leaving aside strong feelings on both sides of the political divide, the government has lost the public’s trust, and hence its legitimacy. Maintaining its bad-faith efforts, it is clinging to power for as long as it can, perhaps in order to finish the job of cleaning up the dirty linen in its closet, but leaving in its trail one constitutional crisis after another. This is not to mention the social, political and financial upheavals that now will face the country for a long time to come.
If this is not a crime that warrants punishment, then what is?