Locating the brake for our runaway gravy train

opinion April 03, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

The courts and other independent agencies of scrutiny are under attack; can reforms bring a halt to rampant corruption and abuse of power in Thailand?

The Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT) has suggested that reform be undertaken in five areas under its master plan for graft-busting: the rule of law and the judicial process, civil and social participation, social morality, transparency, and the roles and accountability of anti-corruption agencies.
The group proposes that each political party should adopt clear policies to rid the country of corruption. It has called for a national anti-graft network to be set up, with regular public campaigns that promote moral standards and condemn corrupt practices. The ACT also wants more transparency in government projects and the use of state funds. At the same time, state agencies responsible for fighting corruption should be armed with more resources, while their personnel and witnesses should be guaranteed the full protection of the state.
Pramon Sutivong, the ACT chairman, says the chronic and worsening problem of corruption is a massive drain on the state budget, crippling our economy as well as our moral standards. Those found guilty of violating anti-corruption laws should face more serious penalties, says Pramon, whose home came under attack from gunmen in February.
Most citizens agree that corruption is a societal disease that attacks our moral and financial health. But for certain others, especially those in office, opportunistic greed simply overwhelms any sense of right and wrong. One result is that many of us who have to deal with officialdom feel it is acceptable to pay “under the table” for favours and better services. If we don’t pay up, we know we will be left behind while others willingly “grease palms” to get ahead.
This ingrained culture of queue-jumping must be discouraged if we want to rid Thailand of corruption. The battle should begin early in life, with a concerted effort to instil the virtues of honesty and civil responsibility in young children – an example set by developed nations where corruption is notably less of a problem. This approach is advocated by Elodie Beth, the United Nations Development Programme’s anti-corruption adviser for Asia-Pacific. The UN agency has led the way by setting up the Thai Youth Anti-Corruption Network.
Developed nations suffer less from corruption not because they have fewer corrupt lawmakers and greedy officials. Rather, they have stronger and more efficient systems of scrutiny that discourage dishonesty among their politicians and bureaucrats. 
In Thailand there have been attempts to weaken the checks-and-balances system with accusations that the courts and other independent agencies of scrutiny are biased. Judges and agency members have faced intimidation, including verbal threats and grenade attacks on their offices. 
As in any democracy, we need an efficient system of oversight that prevents abuse of power by any one group in society. And, if our desire for a healthy democracy is genuine, the responsibility for scrutiny should extend beyond the courts and independent agencies to the mass media and, just as importantly, the general public. 
“Who watches the watchmen?” the ancient Romans asked. The answer is that all of us share the responsibility of remaining vigilant if we want to see transparent, fair and efficient exercise of power in Thailand.