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.
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*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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