Thailand is awash in corruption and the battle against it will be lost unless there is a fundamental shift in Thai politics and culture, an anti-graft official said.
“Everywhere in Thailand there are conflicts of interest,” said Vicha Mahakun, a commissioner with the National Anti-Corruption Commission. “Every business, every government office, everywhere.”
At the heart of the issue is the political patronage system in which campaigning politicians spend money and make promises in exchange for votes and then raid state coffers once in office, Vicha said in an interview in Nonthaburi province near Bangkok on March 30.
“Patronage makes the politicians the center of the communities”, which means “the ordinary people must depend on them,” he said. “Corruption grows and grows because the people think they have the benefit from corruption too.”
Vicha’s scorn for politicians echoes that of the nation’s coupmakers, who since seizing power last May have tried to frame their reform campaign as necessary to rectify the failings of past elected governments. They accuse elected officials of putting their own interests before those of the nation and perverting democracy by enticing voters with ill-conceived populist policies.
Since taking power, the junta’s legislature has retroactively impeached former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was ousted in last year’s coup, over an allegedly graft-riddled rice-purchasing program, and its appointees are writing a new constitution that would limit the power of politicians.
“Almost every military coup since 1957 has seen military juntas accuse civilian politicians of corruption, and they have justified military intervention by this claim,” said Kevin Hewison, director of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Perth. “At the same time, every time a military regime has been ousted, massive corruption and unusual wealth has been discovered among the military leaders.”
The NACC has used military rule to push forward with corruption cases against politicians. In addition to having Yingluck banned from politics, the NACC succeeded in having her criminally charged over the rice case, which could see the former premier jailed for a decade if convicted. The agency is attempting the same with Yingluck’s former commerce minister and is seeking the retroactive impeachment of her brother-in-law, former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, in a separate case.
The Shinawatra family, led by Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is no stranger to run-ins with state watchdogs. After Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup, he was convicted of corruption by a military-appointed court and sentenced in absentia to two years in prison. His family and their supporters see the coups and the charges against them as politically motivated and part of decade-long vendetta aimed at erasing their influence after victories in every national election since 2001.
Vicha, who was appointed to the NACC about two weeks after the 2006 coup, denies that his agency is part of a conspiracy to pick on any one group. “We don’t focus on the person personally,” he said. “Absolutely not. We choose from the content of the case.”
He defends the fast-tracking of Yingluck’s rice case -- the investigation took less than four months -- in comparison to a still-pending probe into corruption in the rice program of her predecessor, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva who left office in 2011. He likens the way the NACC prioritizes its more than 9,000 pending cases to a hospital triage unit.
“You must focus on the serious case or the trouble case.” he said. “If the client comes to the hospital and the client was shot and nearly died. You say wait?”
He said the NACC has also charged Abhisit and his deputy Suthep Thaugsuban in connection with a deadly 2010 military crackdown on supporters of the Shinawatras, known as the Red Shirts. The charges took more than four years.
“It’s not only Thaksin,” Vicha said. “If the other people did like Thaksin, we would take them to the court in the same way.”
Still, he talks about the unusual wealth of what he calls the “Thaksin regime,” a term popularized by protesters who took to the streets for the seven months before the 2014 coup in a bid to oust Yingluck’s government.
“Every case is corruption in policy,” he said. “The policy made them wealthy.”
Vicha accuses the Red Shirts of respecting Thaksin for his cleverness and supporting the former premier despite being aware of his corruption.
“That’s why they fight against us,” he said.
Breaking free of the culture of corruption must start at the community level with a change in thinking, Vicha said. It also needs to be easier to impeach politicians and there must be tougher penalties for those found guilty, he said.
“If we work in the old mindset, we cannot win,” he said.
He said he doesn’t believe that an amnesty would help a politically divided Thailand reconcile, saying there needs to be punishment before forgiveness.
“Forgiveness is not the way of the criminal life in Thailand,” he said.
Murdoch University’s Hewison questions the focus on politicians. While “undoubtedly some elected politicians are corrupt,” he said the view that they are responsible for the nation’s problems is “an ideological position that has been put forward by royalists and the military for several decades.”
“Is the problem that bedevils Thai politics corruption or the repeated intervention of the military and royalists to prevent the emergence of a different political system?” Hewison said. “After all, the repeated reversion to military rule has done nothing to prevent the expansion of corruption and has arguably encouraged it.”