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Rice scheme probe now more important than ever

Investigators must prove how the populist programme is corrupted

The military coup has led to many things, and one of them is the Finance Ministry's "admission" that the rice pledging scheme had inflicted the state with a Bt500 billion loss. Many people have been curious why such a staggering figure had not been officially announced before. As always, theories toe the ideological lines. It could have been a "conspiracy" to frame the ousted government, or the "democratic" administration held desperately onto power because it was sitting on one major scandal.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission will still need time before filing criminal charges against ex-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Having indicted her for allegedly allowing graft to plague the populist programme, the NACC is now on an arguably more sensitive phase of the case.

Seeking her impeachment is one thing; criminalising her acts which could land her in jail in quite another.

The rice pledging case has stunk from the very beginning, with warnings coming from even staunch backers of the Yingluck administration. But the case has also become politicised, featuring in the anti-government campaign that has led to a House dissolution, nullification of a general election and finally the coup. Even the government's failure to pay farmers who sold their rice to the authorities at inflated prices has become controversial, with polarised Thais finding culprits in accordance with their political leanings.

Corruption is known to have loomed over the rice scheme and prominent figures like Pridiyathorn Devakula and Virabongsa Ramangkula had seriously warned about the problem. Having said that, the NACC must come up with strong evidence if criminal proceedings are to begin against Yingluck. In seeking impeachment, the NACC can get the benefit of the doubt. In charging her with corruption, the proof must be beyond reasonable doubt.

While Thailand's political crisis has revolved around charges of corruption, the "big fish" have rarely been caught. Charges of "insufficient proof" have often been used by one side, or the camp led by Thaksin Shinawatra to be exact. While many corruption cases are understandably sophisticated _ like state decisions benefiting some politically-connected businesses and not the others _ money trails related to the rice scheme are said to be relatively easier to track. The burden of proof is on the NACC.

If Yingluck allowed corruption to take place under her nose, subjecting her to impeachment is fair. If she was involved in corruption, the NACC has to prove it. An example was set one day before Yingluck's indictment. The Constitution Court, in a detailed ruling, described how and why Thawil Pliensri was removed as secretary-general of the National Security Council. The ruling left no doubt that his removal was a case of nepotism that totally ignored national interests.

The Constitution Court's watertight ruling embittered supporters of the Pheu Thai Party but there was not much they could do about it. This is in spite of the fact that nepotism and democratic "mandate" are sometimes separated by a very thin line. The NACC has to follow the court's example in solving a jigsaw puzzle for the public. A criminal proceeding against Yingluck, if it's to take place, must be based on a solid "how" she was "involved" in irregularities.

The next challenge for the NACC is to make it a habit. Corruption in Thailand encompasses political parties and the NACC's work must reflect that. Fighting corruption can be the loneliest job on earth but the NACC must have been thankful to the political backdrop against which the rice scheme case was building. The "real fight" will be when the NACC has virtually nobody on its side.

And if it can carry on that fight, maybe Thailand can see light at the end of the tunnel.


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