High hopes stay grounded in Rolls Royce affair
Given our governments’ track record, both civilian and military, the bribery probe is unlikely to clip any wings
It is probably wishful thinking to expect the military-led government to seize on the Rolls Royce scandal as an opportunity to root out corruption in state-run enterprises. Rather, without a means of pinning all the blame on former premier Thaksin Shinawatra or the junta’s other political foes, the investigation is likely to be a whitewash.
Thai Airways International and PTT have both been implicated in the globe-spanning case in which Rolls Royce – by its own admission to a British court – paid bribes to officials in several countries between June 1991 to February 2005. National flag carrier THAI is alleged to have received three bribes from the British engineering firm in exchange for agreeing to purchase its jet engines. Rolls Royce says it paid US$18.8 million between June 1991 and June 1992 to representatives of both the airline and the Thai government to secure an initial contract.
Between March 1992 and March 1997, it is alleged, the British firm agreed to pay $10.3 million, some of which it knew was intended for THAI employees. Between April 2004 and February 2005 THAI placed a third order for engines in return for $7.2 million allegedly destined for government and airline executives.
Rolls Royce claims its intermediaries helped secure contracts with PTT. In one alleged instance, staff of the state-owned energy company discussed how best to disguise a hefty payment on the books. Rolls Royce says it paid PTT more than $11 million over the course of 10 years.
These accusations span eight government administrations, military and civilian, imposed and elected. The largest bribe allegedly paid in Thailand came in 1991-1992, during the tenure of General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who seized power promising to end rampant corruption. Twenty-five years later further evidence emerges that graft is an abiding reality in Thai politics and that the Army, for all its bluster about decency and transparency, is ready to play the same sordid game of payoffs and patronage.
The elite forces that aid or abet military coups claim to despise corruption and are often heard to say it should be ripped from Thai culture by its deep roots. Politicians tend to be blamed most for graft, but of course it happens at every level of society, from schoolteacher to cop on the beat to civil servant.
THAI and PTT have both pledged internal investigations into the allegations, and we are expected to give them the benefit of the doubt, trusting they will take drastic action if the charges prove true. State anti-graft bodies are to conduct a probe too, in consultation with Britain’s Serious Fraud Office, and yet they’ve already dampened expectations for solid results. There is that mitigating matter of statutes of limitations, they point out, which have by now expired in some of the cases.
If Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha managed to buoy hopes somewhat by saying his administration would bring any wrongdoers into justice, his spokesman hastily added that the government alone can’t be expected to end corruption. It was a discouraging comment coming from the junta that justified its 2014 coup with a promise to do precisely that, and by implication do so on its own. But the spokesman’s back-pedalling was no surprise either, given that the junta has shown no inclination to tackle large-scale graft.
The Rolls Royce scandal calls to mind the controversy over the Thai military’s eager investment in British-made GT200 “bomb detectors”. Britain jailed the manufacturer for fraud. Authorities here promised to probe the expenditure of Bt1.4 billion on a gadget that couldn’t be trusted to work, but no one involved was ever prosecuted. In fact some now help run the country.