Abhisit and the royalists

10 02 2010

In a Bangkok Post (10 February 2010) report on the long-known corruption in the police promotions round, mention is made of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appointing an investigation panel to “investigate alleged irregularities in the promotion of senior officers in police regions 1 and 2.Abhisit seems to now take the view that when there’s a political problem, appoint a well-known royalist. So he’s appointed the palace-connected Police General Vasit Dejkunjorn.

PPT has mentioned Vasit before, in one of our most popular posts, A country for old men, we outlined Vasit’s position as a long-time palace favorite who was once the Chief of the Royal Court Police for the Thai royal family. When the military-backed government wanted to root out Thaksinites in the police, they called in this anti-Thaksin Shinawatra policeman. The Democrat Party in Bangkok also slotted this Cold War anti-communist with extremist right-wing views into a job.

Abhisit appointed another palace acolyte in Mechai Viravaidya to look after all the corruption troubles at the Office for Sufficiency Economy Community Projects. His PR skills and palace connections seem to have moved this corruption of the political stage.

What is Vasit expected to do? PPT would guess that he is meant to make a show of corruption while rooting out more alleged Thaksinites. PPT isn’t saying there isn’t corruption in the police – they are the most vile and corrupt agency of the Thai government – but when Vasit is brought in, there is a political task involved.

Sufficiency economy projects and corruption

20 01 2010

Update: The Bangkok Post (20 January 2010) reports that the first investigation into Thai khem kaeng (Strengthening Thailand) projects are just beginning in the Ministry of Education. At the moment it is an internal inquiry. This inquiry is worth following, although the external pressure is not as significant as in the Ministry of Public Health case.

The Post also calls for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to be more open and transparent. It calls for him to release reports on the Ministry of Public Health and Thai Airways scandals. It says: “For a government that occasionally pledges openness and accountability, the actions of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his subordinates in two recent cases must raise eyebrows.” Importantly, it is added: “Abhisit should order their public release, and should also make members of the Banlu commission and the airline’s investigating committee available for close media questioning. These are rapidly becoming cases where justice may seem to have been done. But without full access to the reports Mr Abhisit used as the basis for punishment, no one can know if justice is actually being done.” An excellent point.

*** Original post is below ***

As regular PPT readers will know, we have repeatedly posted regarding the accusations of corruption within the Office for Sufficiency Economy Community Projects since 8 August 2009. We followed up on that first report with more detail on 19 August 2009, and continued to post after that, especially as the projects disappeared from the news. That disappearing act followed the appointment of well-known royalist MechaiViravaidya to take charge of the Office .

In these sufficiency economy scandal, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Korbsak Sabhavasu resigned his role as chair of the Office and his brother, who was deputy head of the Office resigned, but there was no accounting of the corruption that was exposed. It was announced in October that Korbsak would step down as Deputy PM to become Abhisit Vejjajiva’s secretary-general. That only happened this week. No better than a slap on the wrist for an incompetent and allegedly corrupt minister.

Now Mechai has finally made comments that have been reported (The Nation, 19 January 2010).

Mechai is reported as saying that he will “reveal guidelines on fund allocation to district chiefs nationwide. He said these guidelines should minimise corruption because provisions have been made for those involved in graft to face criminal charges.” Interesting comment for it appears to admit corruption (but see below) and, second, seems to say that there were no measures for criminal charges previously. Is that serious? There are umpteen opportunities to bring civil charges and to seek anti-corruption agency investigation.

More interestingly, though, Mechai dismissed the earlier reports of corruption as a public relations problem: “Mechai attributed the negative news to poor public relations and lack of public understanding and participation.

Mechai plans to change this by having “anybody above the age of 15 … [being able to] voice their opinion. This is the first time that the country’s youth, numbering about 5 million, will offer opinions on how the Bt18.6-billion government budget should be allocated…” says Mechai. He also plans a “nationwide referendum for most-needed projects”. In addition, referendum “participants will be encouraged to point to all traces of corruption. At the same time, Mechai has decided that the budget will be used to first help the poor and the underprivileged, not purchase equipment.Mechai added that: “Different opinions are welcome, and a second round of the referendum is possible.

Mechai is a PR specialist. Is PR sufficient? Nationwide referenda will trump local needs assessments? Is this really the way to deal with this particular example of corruption? Thai Crisis also comments here.

Abhisit and Korbsak

10 10 2009

PPT observes that, as corruption allegations widen and deepen within the Democrat Party, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is increasingly unable to maintain his “clean” credentials.

The Bangkok Post (9 October 2009: “PM: Korbsak accepts new job”) reports that Abhisit has appointed Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Korbsak Sabhavasu as his secretary-general. He will be replaced as Deputy PM by Trairong Suwannakhiri, a Democrat Party stalwart from the south, close to the Party old guard. [Update: a reader points out that this is a demotion for Korbsak. PPT agrees. At the same time, as has been shown recently, secretary-general is also a significant position.]

Korbsak is an Abhisit ally, but is also tainted by corruption and nepotism associated with the sufficiency economy shenanigans at the Office for Sufficiency Economy Community Projects, which seem to have been more or less covered up. So is this a promotion or a demotion for Korbsak?

It is hard to tell at present, as the reshuffling should strengthen Abhisit and his backer Chuan Leekpai. Certainly, the Democrats seem to be realigning and factionalizing. Much of this is under pressure from the uncomfortable relationship that the Party has with its Bhum Jai Thai allies in government.

However, keeping Korbsak and having him in a high profile position when he is tainted by corruption allegations is a potentially dangerous move for Abhisit.

In the sufficiency economy projects scandal, Korbsak resigned his role and his brother, who was deputy head of the office resigned, but there has been no accounting so far for the corruption that was exposed. Putting a well-known royalist Mechai Viravaidya in charge of the office seems to have buried the allegations. In any case, back then, Abhisit acknowledged that the investigations would be on the backburner: “I agree with Mr Korbsak’s decision to let Mr Mechai oversee the project. Some schemes under the project will have to be halted so Mr Mechai can examine and fine-tune them.”

Abhisit needs all the support he can muster, so a tainted Korbasak can’t be held responsible for failures, corruption and nepotism.

For more on this story, see here.

Inequality, welfare and the politics of maintaining political control and not mentioning the obscenely wealthy royals

14 09 2009

PPT knows this is a long post. However, because it is an important issue, we are editing, updating and re-posting. This post deals with the first indication of a royalist strategy for addressing the deep issues confronting Thai society and politics that is not absolutely reactionary. That is, it is not a call for “unity” based on mythical ideas about Thainess and the monarchy and nor is it a call for the use of repression and blunt force.

Our updates are at the end of the post.

Also available as: ความไม่เท่าเทียมกัน สวัสดิการ และการเมือง แต่อย่าพูดเรื่องความร่ำรวยเหลือล้นของราชวงศ์

For all the conflict in recent years, it is notable that Thailand’s public debate on the role of the state and welfare has developed and polarized. It has the potential to become more extreme. Recall that many of the PAD’s middle-class support was drawn by Sondhi Limthongkul’s view that a middle-class revolution against Thaksin and his regime who he identified as milking the middle class to buy support from those he identified as uneducated rural voters. When Thaksin introduced his 30 baht scheme there was a tiny group of doctors that opposed the scheme as “socialism” and medical practitioners have been in the PAD vanguard.

In a report in The Nation (13 September 2009: “Think-tank calls for welfare state”) it is said that the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) has proposed “transforming the country into a welfare state.” This is remarkable for TDRI has generally been broadly neo-classical/neo-liberal in its approach to social and economic issues. Its former director was a minister in the military-royalist government led by Privy Councilor General Surayud Chulanont and its current director has worked closely with the World Bank.

Calls for a welfare state have been made in the recent past – from Jon Ungpakorn and from TDRI-associated Ammar Siamwalla. They didn’t get a great deal of support or attention. So why is TDRI proposing a welfare state now? According to the report, the “think-tank” is proposing a “survival strategy” that offers a way out of “the current economic and political distress by that would help bridge opportunity and income disparity.” TDRI chairman Dr Nipon Poapongsakorn, speaking at a seminar organised by the Thai Journalist Association and the King Prachadhipok Institute (KPI), said the institute “believed this would address the root causes of the current political conflicts that have pushed the country to the brink.”

TDRI researchers had found that disparities in income and wealth were “the main cause of the ongoing political conflicts…”. Hence, a welfare state would be “the way out of the political crisis” by closing the “gap between the rich and the poor…”.

Research has long shown large income disparities and inequality in Thailand. TDRI says that the “current market economic system fails to bridge economic inequality and the state also adds salt to injuries for failing to provide equal opportunity for everyone to access financial credit, knowledge, natural resources because the state represents a large business conglomerate that monopolises businesses.” It says that “only a handful group of politicians and businessmen access to business privileges and benefit from the monopoly. The current tax structure does not help reduce assets and wealth concentration.”

It is said that “wealth concentration has a significant correlation to political power…” in the country. It is suggested that tycoons seek political power to “protect business interests and concessions.” Politicians in power “distort the market economy. This is the case especially in a country that lacks political stability.” Nipon argues that the “more assets they have the more the motivation for the businessmen to come to power…”.

Nipon also cited research attributed to “Somkiat Tangkitvanich, which found that in 2004, companies run by Shinawatra family provide 141 per cent better return than other companies. The research also found that companies having connections with ministers enjoy 18.5 per cent higher profit than other companies.”

In fact, these figures are not universally accepted and recent works suggest lesser figures (e.g. Pasuk and Baker’s new edition of Thaksin), although the trend is still seen.

Nipon argued that “a welfare state was the answer because the system could bring sustainable democracy.” Recognizing the potential for a backlash, he also pointed out that “extreme populist policies may trigger a coup or revolt by the rich because they would be hardest hit.” As would be expected from a KPI event, “populist policies bring about great public debt and a lack of fiscal transparency.”

PPT agrees that economic inequalities are a major problem in Thailand. While moves towards a well-organized welfare state would make a lot os sense, PPT has problems with the way the TDRI call is framed.

For a start, TDRI has been aware of these economic disparities for decades, but has done precious little until now to propose alternative ways of dealing with them. It has stuck with market-based ideas for a long time. TDRI also stresses politicians and business people-cum-politicians as being the problem. We can’t disagree that these people have regularly promoted their own interests. At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that the political system has been constructed in conservative ways that have encouraged corruption of various kinds. Indeed, the 2007 Constitution requires corruption (if there is ever to be an election).

We would be more likely to agree with TDRI if it didn’t ignore the wealthiest institution in the country. The monarchy sucks wealth and power into itself, with the Crown Property Bureau being so hugely wealthy that Forbes ranks it as world’s richest. Then there is the huge drain on public resources that we noted recently, which is continuing to rise. Just the Royal Household Bureau’s draw on public funds has almost doubled from 1,136,536,600 baht in 2002 to 2,086,310,000 baht in 2008.

Of course, institutions like TDRI and KPI are dominated by royalists. It is almost impossible to take KPI seriously – it has a history of King Prajadhipok, portraying his as the “father” of Thai democracy but has nothing on Thai democracy’s checkered path.

TDRI has become a bastion of royalists. A brief look at its board see the following royalists and “Prem-ists” listed: Kosit Panpiemras (served the royalis-military government), Chirayu Isarangkun Na Ayuthaya (Director-General, Crown Property Bureau), Juree Vichit-Vadakan (sufficiency economy proponent), Mechai Viravaidya (Chairman, Population and Community Development Association and married to a senior palace aide), Snoh Unakul (former Prem government economic guru and chair of the royal-controlled Siam Cement Foundation and on the board of a number of royal companies), Sumet Tantivejkul (Secretary-General, the main royal foundation, the Chaipattana Foundation), and so on. Actually, if one wanted to study wealth and power networks in Thailand, the board of TDRI might be one place to begin.

Finally, what is missing in this proposal is any account of how political power might be changed. In fact, the proposal rings hollow as an elite-based attempt to maintain their own political power. Don’t get us wrong; reforming economic policies and addressing welfare is worthy. However, when it is done to avoid thorough-going political reform it hardly ranks as a liberal proposal for reform.

Hopefully the debate doesn’t deteriorate as in the U.S. and that the issue of economic inequality can remain on the agenda in Thailand but linked firmly with political fairness, human rights and democratic development.

Update 1: The Bangkok Post (13 September 2009: “Welfare state key to future”) has a similar report to that in The Nation, reported above. However, there are a couple of additional points worthy of note.

TDRI research director Somkiat Tangkitvanich said “unfair income distribution among Thais had led to major political disruptions such as the Sept 19, 2006, coup which occurred because the government had tried to improve income distribution via extreme [sic] populist policies.” This is an interesting perspective and worthy of consideration. Somkiat is acknowledging that Thaksin’s approach to politics involved a basic change to policy. What is now being proposed is that the anti-Thaksin groups accept that they need to do something similar in political and policy terms. It acknowledges that royalists, conservatives and “the elite” need to compromise on economic issues if they are to maintain their political power.

KPI secretary-general Borwornsak Uwanno, who earlier broached this topic, but in a context of political illiberalism, said KPI “would help push forward the academics’ idea, by proposing it to the government and the parliament.” He added that he believed that “Thailand will go through a major change. If we’re not prepared, the situation could go the same way as it did in the May 1992 or the October 1973 uprisings…”. Maybe, except that he fears that his elite will lose their political control.

This “welfarist” position will allow for the political continuation of “Thai-style democracy” that royalists promote. When pressured politically, Thailand’s “royal liberals” seem to lose their liberalism in favour of royalism. But here they offer a way out that moves the focus to economic well-being but maintains political control. Singapore and China come to mind, and it is the long-term goal of Burmese generals.

But can the “royal liberals” win out? Recall that the king himself opposes welfare. Sufficiency economy is fundamentally anti-welfare and he has said before that he opposes social welfare because it makes people lazy.

Update 2: The Nation has an editorial (14 September 2009: “Idea of a welfare state is worth exploring”) has a different take on TDRI’s interest in the welfare state idea: “The TDRI is quite concerned about the growing tendency towards economic populism. The Thaksin government began this trend by offering handouts to the poor. Subsequent governments, including the current Abhisit government, have followed suit.”

And, beginning the nonsense that usually goes along with debates about welfare, states: “We support the concept of a welfare state. But further discussion is needed over how we can finance the welfare state. Most developed countries, with strong welfare protection, are facing unsustainable public debt.” Of course, this statement is not supported by the facts. What the editorialist means is that tax revenues need to increase. However, as noted in the editorial, at present, Thailand allocates just “2.8 per cent … of the gross domestic product … to welfare.”

More on sufficiency projects and corruption (with several updates)

19 08 2009

Several updates below.

PPT readers may recall our earlier post (in Thai here) on corruption in the Office for Sufficiency Economy Community Projects that had been set up by the Democrat Party-led government. Back then we pointed out that there had been a rising tide of media criticism. The story suggested some serious problems for the government and for the Democrat Party especially as Deputy Prime Minister Korbsak Sabhavasu,  in charge of the sufficiency office, seemed to also be involved in nepotism with his brother working as a deputy director in the office.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva acknowledged problems but denied everything related to the Democrat Party and blamed everyone else, including trying to pin responsibility on the Thaksin Shinawatra government that was thrown out in the September 2006 coup. The office was not dealing in small change, with the government has allocated 21 billion baht to the office.

Over the past couple of weeks, Abhisit has maintained his denials. Now, however, the Bangkok Post (19 August 2009: “Korbsak quits sufficiency project”) Korbsak has resigned as “chairman of the sufficiency economy community project.”

This is a major problem for Abhisit, whose denials were strong. Abhisit has now had to shamefacedly confirm that the opposition Puea Thai Party’s allegations that the sufficiency economy community projects were tainted with corruption are correct.In fact, the initial allegations were not from Puea Thai, but originated from within the communities meant to benefiting from the projects and Peua Thai took them up.

Korbsak is due to hold a press conference that might be embarrassing for the government.

So how does Abhisit deal with the fallout? It seems that the best way is to bring in a died-in-the-wool royalist and widely acknowledged rural development champion to sort it out. Mechai Viravaidya is suggested as the new chairman for the project office. Abhisit says: “I agree with Mr Korbsak’s decision to let Mr Mechai oversee the project. Some schemes under the project will have to be halted so Mr Mechai can examine and fine-tune them.”

Brilliant idea! Except that Mechai* is already vice chairman of the committee overseeing the Office. So what has he been doing in that capacity so far? As vice chairman, royalist champion and development expert he must also bear responsibility for the rampant corruption in an Office that he has overseen. Sounds like a continuing effort at a cover-up.

*On Mechai see his brief entry at Wikipedia and an authorized biography here. His Population and Community Development Association (PDA) is one of the best-known rural development agencies in Thailand and has had lashings of funds from corporations, international agencies and aid organizations galore. Mechai did much when an appointed minister in 1991-92 to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and action, at a critical time in the development of the disease in Thailand.

It is difficult to be critical of a national and international icon. In 1994 Mechai received a Ramon Magsaysay award for Public Service and in 2007 PDA was awarded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Gates Award. The U.S.’s PBS calls him a “Global Health Champion” and Time lists him as an “Asian Hero.” Perhaps less illustriously, he is identified by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation as one of “The Leaders.”

Part of the reason he is liked so much internationally is because he is a part of Thailand’s elite that feels comfortable with foreigners and is one of the “interpreters” of Thailand for foreigners who promote the royalist view of politics and society. Mechai is also seen as a model for his engagement in business (see his CV), his promotion of social entrepreneurialism, microfinance, corportae social responsibility and other neoliberal ideas through the PDA’s projects, making PDA an NGO that is easy to deal with as it feels more like a corporation than any kind of “radical” organization.

And, Mechai has impeccable connections.

Mechai has been one of Thailand’s “elite” of politicians-cum-ministers, seldom holding his positions through election but by appointment. His election success was in the first elected senate. Apart from that he has been, variously, Deputy Minister of Industry (1985-86) and then Cabinet Spokesman (1986-88, for the always unelected General Prem Tinsulanonda), appointed Senator (1987-91), Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office (1991-92, for the twice appointed Anand Punyarachun), Adviser to the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs (1997).

Mechai has strong royal connections. His biography says, simply that he “accompanied Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn on several official foreign trips.” It adds that his “wife Putrie now headed the personal affairs division of King Bhumipol’s private secretary’s office.” Putrie is listed elsewhere as Than Phuying Putrie Viravaidya, His Majesty’s Deputy Principal Private Secretary” and was earlier the Manager of the Royal Projects Division. She is one of the most important figures in the palace. The little comment about accompanying the prince is interesting as there have long been rumors that Mechai has been working with the prince on his image.

Mechai is establishment Thailand.

Update: The Nation (20 August 2009: “Corruption probe will test Abhisit’s integrity”) has an editorial, where the headline speaks for itself. Abhisit is potentially in trouble. However, it seems to PPT that by elevating Mechai one step up the ladder and appointing a Democrat parliamentarian to investigate the alleged corruption the damage control-cover-up is continuing.

Further Update:The Bangkok Post (20 August 2009: “Korbsak quits office post”) reports on Korbsak’s resignation as chairman of the Community Sufficiency Economy Project. Korbsak says he resigned to allow “the government a free hand to investigate alleged irregularities.” He says he is also encouraging his younger brother, Praphote, to quit as deputy director of the Sufficiency Economy Office for Community Development, the office responsible for granting funds to community projects. Praphote is now said to have been the one who screened proposed projects before they were submitted for approval by a subcommittee chaired by his big brother.

Korbsak said that there would be “a fair and transparent investigation by police and the Office of the Auditor-General. He called on Auditor-General Khunying Jaruvan Maintaka yesterday to ask her investigate the alleged irregularities.” Jaruvan is not unblemished herself, is certainly partisan and allegations against “a senior official” being investigated. Korbsak also said that a Crime Suppression Division team had been set up to investigate “possible graft or violations of codes of conduct.” He added that “his Democrat Party’s investigations into the alleged corruption at the agency was expected to be concluded in a few days.”

Abhisit believed that Korbsak’s resignation from the board “should allay fears he would interfere with investigations.” But this is an odd way to investigate. Korbsak and the Democrats have established the parameters and the terms while he and his brother were still in place and with vice chairman Mechai replacing him and the projects will continue, with Abhisit saying: “He [Mr Mechai] will propose the structure of the [project screening] committees and he will have full authority…”. However, for the first time Abhisit said, “the matter might be brought before the National Anti-Corruption Commission for investigation.”

This suggests that the political fallout is already significant as there was lobbying in the Democrat Party to get the failed managers and Korbsak’s brother sacked. A Democrat Party source is said to be concerned that the ” alleged irregularities are threatening the party’s chances in next year’s elections of provincial and district councillors in Bangkok,” and added: “Someone must be held responsible for the damage because of a lack of transparency in the scheme.”

Update (21 August): Prapote, deputy director of the Office of Sufficiency Economy for Community Development and Minister Korbsak’s brother, has resigned from his position.

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