Sufficiency economy, corruption and conflicts of interest

8 08 2009

This post is available in Thai here.

When the Democrat Party was maneuvered into power last December at the head of a coalition government, its first stated objective was to protect and uphold the position of the monarchy. As part of this political objective, the government announced an allocation of billions of baht for a sufficiency economy community projects, to be administered through a new Office for Sufficiency Economy Community Projects.

Sufficiency economy is an idea that the king promoted around the time of the 1997 economic crisis in Thailand (see here and here) and which was later taken up by the military-installed government led by privy councilor Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont and, somewhat oddly, by the Thailand office of the UNDP (see here). Like the Surayud government, the Democrats promoted this idea for ideological reasons. This involves considerable funding and the promotion of sufficiency economy as a pillar of development policy. It has to be said, however, that the Democrat government is less vociferous in its promotion of the idea than Surayud, who really seemed to believe in the idea.

Some weeks ago, the Office for Sufficiency Economy Community Projects began to receive media criticism regarding corruption in its operations. PPT recalls a ThaiPBS documentary that listed a series of complaints related to solar-powered water and lighting. The story went quiet for a while, but has now come back and it suggests some serious problems for the Democrat Party-led government.

On 31 July 2009 (Bangkok Post, “Fund office tries to keep politicians at bay”) the director of the projects’ office gave an interview to reject some of the statements of “villagers [who] complained about the lack of participation and alleged corruption in community development projects.” Director Sumit Champrasit acknowledged widespread dissatisfaction, but attempted to play it down: “We have received several hundred complaints but only about 80 had grounds for investigation…”. The Office was investigating itself through an inquiry led by General “Chatchawal Natthanan, a retired officer formerly with the Internal Security Operations Command.”

The Office was administering considerable funds. The Director stated: “The government has allocated 21 billion baht to the office. Around 8.5 billion baht has been spent for community projects so far, in 31,000 of around 80,000 villages and communities across the country. Each community receives between 100,000 and 700,000 baht, depending on the size of the village or community and the project.”

Admitting problems, the Director blamed it all on “local politicians,” saying “I don’t want to see these politicians getting involved with community projects, although this could only be a dream. Meddling with community projects will do more harm than good to them in the long run. Good politicians should care more about people’s interests than their own.”

A few days later, reacting to opposition Puea Thai Party calls for Korbsak Sabhavasu to resign as deputy prime minister in charge of the sufficiency office, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva denied that national-level politicians were involved. In the Bangkok Post (6 August 2009: “Abhisit moves to hose down sufficiency projects scandal”) he is reported as claiming that “local communities were being fed distorted information by local officials about the sufficiency projects and might have been ‘lured to undertake them.”

PPT again observes that Abhisit regularly claims that villagers are “lured” into particular actions, apparently reflecting his view that regular people are not bright enough to make their own decisions.

He also pointed fingers at “staff at the office’s Bangkok headquarters” and at Thaksin Shinawatra, suggesting that the “alleged malpractice might have originated during the period when the office was in charge of managing small, medium and large (SML) enterprises…. The SML project was created by the Thaksin Shinawatra government.” He added that “criminal charges had been pressed against officials suspected of having a hand in the corruption.”

Seeming to contradict the prime minister, Senator Yutthana Yuparit, of the senate committee on budget scrutiny, said “communities which sought office funding to undertake sufficiency projects were told to buy outrageously overpriced equipment such as water purifiers. In some cases, funds from the office were allegedly transferred to communities even before projects were approved. The senator said some office staff had chosen projects for communities to undertake when the communities should have decided for themselves.”

A few days later, the Director of the Sufficiency Economy Office organized a press “conference to deny the claim that he allows the private sector to benefit from the sufficiency economy for community project” (TAN Network, 7 August 2009: “Sufficiency Econ Office Chief Denies Involvement with Private Firm”). Sumit claimed “that he has a part in BNB Inter Group, a private company that has been purchasing equipment for the community efficiency economy project. He said he officially resigned from the director position at the International Engineering Company (IEC) in February 2008, before the company took over BNB Inter Group.” He said he would not resign.

Meanwhile, Minister Korbsak “insisted that the head of the office would need to prove himself with facts and truthful evidence against the claim.”

The Bangkok Post (7 August 2009: “Robbing the poor blind”) laments that the “value of moderation, which His Majesty the King champions through his sufficiency philosophy, has been used as an empty mantra by successive governments so overwhelmingly and without meaningful action, that the sufficiency concept has lost its meaning altogether.” It adds, “Because of its perceived royal connotations, these words appear in most activities and projects where the government wants to evoke political legitimacy and, more importantly, neutralise criticism.”

Noting the corruption in the sufficiency projects, the Post blames local politics, claiming that“most local communities are under the firm grip of local godfathers who double as kamnan, village heads and members of the tambon administration organizations. The majority of villagers know little or nothing at all about this scheme. Even if they do, few know how to write the proposals to fit bureaucratic requirements. Many local administrators and politicians, therefore, step in to decide for the whole community. Getting the villagers’ signatures to back the proposals is no problem while any benefits from the projects are largely shared among people in their power network.”

Like Abhisit, those ensconced in comfortable offices seem to think the villagers are so stupid that they do not know what is going on in their local communities. They conveniently forget that it was villagers who raised the initial complaints. PPT can affirm that the ThaiPBS report clearly made this point.

The Post editorial concludes: “This Sufficiency Community Project has nothing to do with moderation. It is a hasty, populist handout to counter Thaksin Shinawatra’s popularity in the countryside and to garner support for the next general election. With abuse and corruption so rife, it also amounts to daylight robbery at a time when the country is going through its darkest financial hour.”

This might be so, but The Nation (7 August 2009: “Projects that will benefit some halted”) has a revealing story, well worth considering. Deputy Prime Minister Korbsak has suspended “the endorsement of any projects involving alternative energy…”, claiming that these benefited just a few suppliers.

Korbsak admitted “some irregularities” and parroted Abhisit on “corrupt officials changing proposals presented by villages for their own benefit. Local politicians had also influenced some questionable projects…”.

What is more interesting though is that Korbsak then defends his brother: “The deputy PM said he trusted his brother, Prapote, who is deputy director of the Sufficiency Economy Office for Community Development, which grants funds to community projects nationwide.” Korbsak stated: “I wouldn’t have brought him in if he was dishonest. He represents me and I trust him to be my eyes and ears. If he is corrupt, then I would have to go because he works for me…”.

Korbsak then claims that the “irregularities” involved “five less senior officials” and the “agency’s chief, Sumit…”. In other words, officials above and below his brother, but not his brother.

But what is Korbsak doing overseeing and agency where his brother holds a senior position? More to the point, why did he appoint his brother to the agency? More than a whiff of conflict of interest here.And why is Abhisit defending corruption and nepotism?

Update: Joining those claiming villagers are duped is Puea Thai MP for Bangkok Anudit Nakornthap who claimed they “had been lured into signing their names to seek government funding for sufficiency projects in their communities…” (Bangkok Post, 8 August 2009: “Puea Thai urges DSI to begin graft probe”). This claim was made when the party called for the “Department of Special Investigation to look into alleged corruption in the government’s community sufficiency economy projects,” It seems that being “duped” is currently a “that explains it!” answer for all manner of problems.


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