Surin lost on corruption

13 10 2013

PPT affirms, with longtime Democrat Party senior and Democrat Party-founded, funded and backed chair of the Future Innovation Thailand Institute Surin Pitsuwan, that corruption is a terrible problem for Thailand. In virtually all newspapers, Surin is reported as warning that corruption “has reached crisis point and must be tackled with urgency.”

But that hardly seems like a remarkable insight. And the urgency seems many years overdue. After all, others have been making similar claims for a very long time. Just for background, PPT just did a bit of a search and found various accounts from 1932 to the present that provide comments on corruption and politics in Thailand that destabilized governments.

In 1932, one of the main claims against King Prajadhipok was corruption, with part of the People’s Party’s first announcement of the Revolution stating, in part:

When this king succeeded his elder brother, people at first hoped that he would govern protectively. But matters have not turned out as they hoped. The king maintains his power above the law as before. He appoints court relatives and toadies without merit or knowledge to important positions, without listening to the voice of the people. He allows officials to use the power of their office dishonestly, taking bribes in government construction and purchasing, and seeking profits from changes in the price of money, which squanders the wealth of the country.1951 30 Jun

Note the bit about taking bribes on construction,  more or less congruent with some of the claims made by Surin in 2013!

The 1951 account is of a coup attempt against Field Marshal Phibun based on claims of corruption. This is the Manhattan Incident, which saw considerable fighting in the streets. All military regimes have been justifiably accused of rampant corruption by their opponents.

A notable example is the current king’s father-figure, the dictatorial General Sarit Thanarat. Following his death, and inheritance battle revealed massive corruption:

After Sarit’s death, his reputation took a heavy blow when a bitter inheritance battle between his son, Major Setha Thanarat, and his young wife, Thanpuying Vichitra Thanarat, revealed the massive extent of Sarit’s wealth (US$ 140 million). He was discovered to have owned a trust company, a brewery, 51 cars and some 30 plots of land, most of which he gave to the dozens of mistresses he was found to have had.

A 1990 account tells of the corruption that destabilized the Chatichai Choonhavan government. Claims of corruption allowed the military leadership to snipe, and with the king’s approval, resulted in a coup in 1991. 1990

Comparing levels of corruption between the grasping military leaders and the civilian leaders is not easy. A couple of academics tried it a few years ago. They came up with this:corruptionSurin, however, thinks that a crisis point has been reached. While PPT agrees that corruption is a problem, we also acknowledge that corruption occurs at multiple levels and has varying impacts. Yet we are not entirely sure why there is a crisis right now. Perhaps it is because Surin was performing, according to The Nation, “at the Democrat Party headquarters.”

Why didn’t Surin see a “crisis point” reached when he was a minister? After all, that 30-35% cost of corruption he claims for the contemporary period seems little different from the period when he was in a ministerial seat. We checked this with a regular PPT correspondent who encountered such levels when working on infrastructure projects in Thailand in the early 1990s when a Democrat Party government was in power. And, yes, that government fell over corruption: “the first Chuan government (1992–1995) fell when members of the Cabinet were implicated in profiting from Sor Phor Kor 4-01 land project documents distributed in Phuket province.”

We think Surin is being rather too much of a Democrat Party elder in making this point. We suspect that he is lazily linking to the royalist propaganda that only civilian politicians are corrupt bastards.

The real issue is thus lost in this royalist politicization: whether military, civilian, royal, Democrat Party-led, royalist or pro-Thaksin Shinawatra, corruption has been a major issue. It is most obviously not a recent problem. Politicizing in this way is unlikely to lead to serious consideration of the issue.

We can’t help wondering if corruption might be challenged if: (i) the military was depoliticized; (ii) the monarchy and its funding was made public; (iii) secret funds were made transparent; (iv) the courts abandoned double standards and accepted ideas of equality before the law; and (v) state officials were held responsible for their actions, including murdering citizens?



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