When the anti-Thaksin People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) campaign against corruption, they actually only mean a certain type of graft: corruption by politicians. In fact, they emphasise corruption only by some politicians.
Actually, the movement’s leader Suthep Thaugsuban is no stranger to corruption charges; even Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva admitted to the BBC that Mr Suthep is no poster child for anti-corruption. Mr Suthep’s denial of allegations of corruption makes it clear that the PDRC is determined not to check their own past irregularities. Their main targets are only politicians working for the so-called “Thaksin regime”.
Some justify the current emphasis on Thaksin by talking about the scale of corruption. If Thaksin-related graft is the worst, then preventing it would at least help stop the worst types of corruption. They argue that Thaksin engages in policy-related graft, and the scale of the loss is much greater than what they consider petty corruption.
Indeed policy-related corruption is extremely damaging but it is not limited to politicians. The bureaucracy and private sector are also known for it. The military, for instance, was recently caught in a scandal over lack of transparency in buying pricey bogus GT200 bomb detectors. The military paid about 900 million baht for pieces of plastic and metal that caused deaths and injuries because they failed to detect bombs.
This is one of the case studies from the Thailand Development Research institute’s (TDRI) research project “Citizen’s Manual for Corruption Awareness”, which compiles 35 prominent corruption cases from sectors ranging from education, the police, agriculture, real estate, to less expected ones such as the judiciary and disaster relief.
Another big problem is institutionalised corruption. Many acts of corruption are so common and ingrained in society that people often no longer feel guilty about being involved in them as they are considered additional costs to a product or service, rather than graft, because everyone does it.
Here are three common practices. First, many parents pay school principals to send their children to their desired school. Second, many people bribe police officers to avoid staying overnight in prison whenever they are caught drink driving (after which they continue to jeopardise the lives of others by driving home intoxicated).
Third, less directly, many Thai men frequent brothels despite their illegality and the bribery needed for such businesses to operate.
These practices may seem petty in comparison to policy-related corruption, but to the extent that they are institutionalised, they can rival policy-related graft in terms of impact. One way to assess an act of corruption is by estimating what financial and non-financial loss it incurs. In the case of Thailand’s sex industry, ambiguous laws ensure corruption is rife in the police force. They also serve ambient domestic demand and make Thailand one of the top sex tourism destinations.
The current anti-Thaksin movement is not thinking hard enough when fighting just policy-related and institutionalised corruption. The proposal to establish a “People’s Council” is a case in point. By allocating over 60% of the council’s seats to PDRC members, the PDRC seeks to stop the corruption of pro-Thaksin politicians but makes its own politicians totally unaccountable to citizens.
If these PDRC politicians were to engage in graft, citizens would have no means left to remove them. Such an arrangement discourages a culture of public scrutiny where citizens actively keep public institutions accountable. The fight against the corruption endemic to Thailand is a much bigger agenda. Rather than replacing evil politicians with less evil ones – as proposed by the PDRC – make the less evil politicians accountable too. A better system of accountability that could actually bite powerful figures, the bureaucracy and institutions needs to be in place.
A big shift in social values may also be needed, such as for the sex industry, which will likely never disappear. Thailand may need to legalise sex work in order to put an end to the black market in sex, turn corruption money into tax for the public’s benefit, and better protect sex workers. Policy corruption by politicians is just one form of graft our country needs to confront.
First published: Bangkok Post, February 15, 2014