Thawil's case exhibits another flaw in the system

opinion March 15, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

Nepotism in high places is undermining democratic principles and the effectiveness of our bureaucracy

Democracy affords us the right to change almost anything, its advocates say. Which is why, when Thawil Pliensri was removed as secretary-general of the National Security Council in 2011, those who disagreed gritted their teeth and bore it. When the Supreme Administrative Court ruled last week that his transfer was unjust, the cracks in his papered-over bureaucratic fate suddenly showed. What was initially defended as a democratic exercise was questioned, scrutinised and made to seem anything but.
To cut to the chase, Thawil was bumped off the NSC to make way for then-police chief Wichien Pojphosri, who had in his turn been forced to make way for political favourite Priewphan Damapong. Priewphan got the police top job and Wichien saved “face” by taking over at the NSC. Thawil ended up the victim in this high-level case of seeming nepotism.
Democratic governments can chop and change. They can replace an experienced senior bureaucrat with one less experienced or less qualified. When someone who benefits from a reshuffle is related to the prime minister, such an exercise not only weakens the bureaucracy, it weakens democracy itself.
Of course, democratically elected politicians are entitled to work alongside those with whom they feel most comfortable, but this flexibility has its limits. There is a clear line when it comes to official appointments, and crossing that line invites nepotism. And whether it’s practised under democracy or dictatorship, nepotism equates to corruption, inefficiency, demoralisation and the degradation of ethical standards.
Thawil’s case was just one high-level example among many. There have been several questionable transfers and promotions at the Finance Ministry in recent years. Some officials were reportedly owed favours by political big names and “rewarded” accordingly. Good reshuffles by politicians spur complacent bureaucrats into action; bad reshuffles discourage good bureaucrats, even turning them into bad ones.
Thawil’s effectiveness as NSC chief might be debatable, but the manner in which he was removed so that Wichien could shuffle across and be replaced by Priewphan is contentious. Priewphan, who was approaching mandatory retirement age at the time, was anything but highly qualified for the top police job. That so much fuss had to be created by the Yingluck government so that Priewphan could retire with “honour” spoke volumes about how deep-rooted nepotism has become in Thai politics. 
It’s fair to say that nepotism has plagued all Thai administrations. This is why our much-discussed political-reform process must tackle the issue. A line must be drawn between the legitimate democratic right of politicians to decide which people work for them and the self-serving abuse of that right to reward family and friends. Thawil has received reparations in court, but not all bureaucrats who fall victim to nepotism have the opportunity or determination to fight injustice all the way.
With no sign of an end to the political warring, the will to tackle nepotism could suffer the same fate as the campaign against other types of corruption. Accusations of graft are flying, but government supporters are counter-attacking by claiming the Yingluck government is being made the scapegoat for a problem that permeates society. And, as with other forms of corruption, nepotism has a tendency to evade efforts to control it, strengthening its grip thanks to the mentality of “If others can do it, why can’t we?”