He is damned, but then so is the rest of the country
Long-time fugitive Kamnan Poh is captured in Bangkok , thus revealing, yet again, Thailand's weak or non-existent political ethicsSometimes we can easily perceive old ethical questions as new ones. The questions being asked in the aftermath of the arrest of one of Thailand's most infamous "godfathers" are all but obsolete. The issues being debated are as old as his conviction, surviving the years he spent in "hiding". We are not in a peculiar situation right now - we simply forgot we've been in it for a long time.
After seven years on the run after his convictions for murder and corruption, Chon Buri-based influential figure Somchai Khunpluem, better known as Kamnan Poh, was arrested on Wednesday while travelling in his vehicle in eastern Bangkok. His capture was all over the front pages, along with the fact that, at long last, he will now begin serving a jail term of more than 30 years. Attention is shifting to his children, who are now well-known political figures in their own right with strong connections to the government. What will happen to them? Did they know where he was? Should they show some kind of "responsibility" by quitting their posts?
That Somchai has managed to remain at large for so long should not be a surprise. Nor have the assurances of immunity from responsibility that some political leaders have quickly given his offspring raised many eyebrows. Senior government officials have already dismissed possible repercussions for his four sons, ruling out suspicion that some if not all of them must have known of Somchai's whereabouts all this time. It doesn't matter that at least one big birthday party was held for Somchai in Chon Buri "in his absence". And it doesn't matter that his capture in Bangkok suggested the fugitive's hiding places might not have been so secret after all.
This is a country where top officials have been travelling to Dubai, Singapore and other places to meet fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra for advice or fun. Ethical and legal questions over Somchai's whereabouts, over people who knew about them, and over what should be done now, apart from putting him in jail, can seem trivial. Yet people who want justice are keen to see what happens to Sonthaya Khunpluem, who is now culture minister; Wittaya Khunpluem, who is president of Chon Buri's Provincial Administrative Organisation; Itthiphol Khunpluem, who is mayor of Pattaya; and Narongchai Khunpluem, who is mayor of Saensuk.
Influential figures are politicians without an electoral mandate. That is the norm not only in Thailand but many other places. The difference between here and other countries lies in how we handle the situation when something like this happens. Political power helps cover up crimes, but everything has a limit. How far politics goes in providing such unhealthy protection defines a country's ethical standards and respect for the rule of law.
A legitimate question is "Why now?" In other words, why weren't the ethical and legal questions related to Somchai's conviction, his escape and his sons addressed a long time ago, when he was convicted or when his sons took up government positions? These are the current questions, but they're not new. They're old questions that have resurfaced simply because Somchai has resurfaced.
We are a society with a bad habit of addressing ethical questions when it's nearly too late. And the funny thing about ethics is that the longer we wait, the harder the ethics are to uphold. Some countries don't wait for a conviction. They consider the allegations sufficient for ethics to have their say. In other countries they wait until a conviction is handed down. In Thailand, nothing is done until a fugitive re-emerges after seven years in hiding.
It's doubtful that Somchai's case will change this. Pressure might be mounting on his sons, but only because their father is so notorious. In many "lesser" cases, the ethical questions have been shrugged off. When the Somchai issue dies down, Thailand could swiftly go back to describing calls for ethical responsibility a "political conspiracy". And that, sadly, may be the end of it.