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.

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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