Politics of scandal, scandal of politics
The no confidence debate has become an annual festival—a political Songkran, with dirty water poured over the nation’s rulers. Such festivals seem to be the same each year. But actually they change. This year, the celebration was longer. This recognized an important fact: Chuan Two has been a great age of scandals. Let’s just recall the main ones.
Salween. A senior forestry official burst into Government House with five million baht in an old cardboard box. He claimed the money was an attempted bribe. He could not think what else to do except give it to the PM on live TV.
The press and TV detailed how 13-20,000 logs had been felled illegally in the Salween forests, and laundered through Burma. In a newspaper interview, the log-dealer at the centre of the affair mad a virtual confession, boasted of his powerful connections, and showed off the diamond-studded belt holding up his jeans.
What happened? The official with the five million baht in a box lost his job. Six forestry officials were disciplined. The police said they were just about to file a case against the diamond-belted log dealer. That was over three months ago. Meanwhile illegal logging has been reported in at least eight other national forests.
Edible Seeds. The Agriculture Ministry distributed a glossy package of seeds to farmers. It made a TV ad boasting how this project would rescue rural Thailand from the economic crisis. It was leaked that the seeds were overpriced by about 10 times. The ad disappeared. The deputy minister had to resign. The Counter Corruption Commission found evidence of massive collusion by lots of officials. Leaks from the probe suggested the scam went right to the top of a certain political party. The Agriculture Ministry promptly launched its own probe. Forty-seven officials were disciplined for minor "negligence". The minister declared the case closed.
Public Health. The deputy minister of health lifted price control on drugs and medical equipment. Provincial hospitals were instructed to buy supplies from specified companies at 2 to 10 ten times the market price. Two ministers were forced to resign. The head of the ministry was suspended. The press carried detailed accounts of how the scandal had been organised. The Counter Corruption Commission ruled that there was no evidence to proceed with a criminal charge against anyone else involved, either politician or official. Subsequent probes have been similarly sandbagged.
Si Nakharin. Three luxurious villas were being built on land which looked suspiciously like forest land. The documents had been issued improperly. The Accelerated Rural Development Dept was building a road which happened to go to these houses and nowhere else. The scandal quickly started to snowball. Down the road another 2-3,000 other plots, supposed to be resettlement for displaced local villagers, were owned by military men, Bangkok socialites, and relatives of the deputy governor. Another thousand plots were identified at Khao Laem reservoir with nice lakeside locations and boat jetties. Another 1000 rai in Ranong were owned by those nice people from Phuket who gave us the SPK-401 scandal. An enormous hill-top house in a national park in Udon was emblazoned with the personal emblem of an ex-minister. This snowball was getting too big and dangerous. Everything went totally quiet. Recent attempts to reopen the case have been sternly resisted by men in uniform.
Rice support. Government provided money for rice millers to buy paddy at guaranteed prices. Some millers simply took the money and revalued stocks of paddy they had bought earlier at much cheaper rates. Others were so impressed by this accounting trick that it was copied all over the northeast. The book-keeping required collusion by local officials. When the scandal broke, one of these officials fainted under questioning. Chuan said: "We will not let the guilty escape unpunished." So far no charges have been laid.
Nong Ngu Hao airport landfill. A prime minister’s office committee ruled that the bidding for the contract had been rigged, and the pricing vastly inflated. It suggested both politicians and officials had been involved. The contract is worth 6.8 billion. So far nothing has happened.
Enough. There’s still computer software, flying house registrations, Samut Prakarn elections, highway police, kickbacks in the port, the Food and Drug Authority, the Kurusapha textbook scandal, various banks, and a host of mini-scandals about smuggled cars, German gangsters, fake CDs, and amphetamines.
This eruption of scandals is happening because more people are prepared to act as whistle-blowers. The economic crisis has made many people less tolerant. The passage of the 1997 constitution has fostered a hope that ordinary people can challenge the powerful. Newspapers have discovered that scandalisation sells copies.
But all this whistle-blowing is not yet getting much in the way of concrete results. No living Thai politician has been seriously punished for corruption. The old Counter Corruption Commission (now superseded) never once succeeded in punishing a senior official over a major scandal.
Scandals are changing. In the past, there were two types: systematic siphoning and redistribution within bureaucratic departments; and politicians’ schemes to earn one-off backhanders from contracts and other big expenditures. But recent scandals are different. Politicians and high officials work together. See the Edible Fence and Public Health scandals. The ministers make a crucial change in regulation. The officials implement the systems to inflate the prices. Everybody collects.
This collusion is effective. As long as the politicians and officials stick together, they can smother any scandal with investigative committees and bureaucratic delaying tactics. They can rely on the short attention-span of the media.
Moreover, there is a "Chuan effect". He of course is as clean as a whistle. But he has to keep his coalition afloat. Whenever a scandal breaks, he says in his soft voice that everything will be taken care of by the law. His own halo serves as an umbrella for his less angelic colleagues.
But there are positive signs. First, the new National Counter Corruption Commission has a lot more and sharper teeth than the old one did. We have yet to see how it will use those teeth, but at least it has them.
Second, although very few big people have been legally punished over these scandals, yet some have been publicly punished. Three ministers were forced to resign. This had never happened before.
Third, political leaders are becoming worried. Chavalit announced he would have the police run background checks on all his party’s candidates at the next election. Of course, this announcement was wonderfully ludicrous. It shows a touching faith in the police. But it does suggest a growing sensitivity.
Fourth, civic groups are not giving up. Chang Noi’s person-of-the-year prize goes to Khun Rossana who is still resisting the repeated attempts of the politicians and officials to bury the public health scandal.
Finally, the recent no confidence festival showed another glimmer of light. The big scandals now have party labels on them. Si Nakharin is a Democrat scandal. The Edible Fence is a Chat Thai scandal. Public Health is rapidly becoming a Democrat scandal. And so on. These scandals then become bargaining chips in the arm-wrestling between parties. Forget Si Nakharin or I’ll unearth the Chat Thai connection to Rakesh Saxena. Lay off the Public Health scandal or I’ll reopen the Edible Seeds case. This is blackmail and brinkmanship of a high order. And very difficult for the politicians to control. How much longer before a political party recognises that there could be real electoral advantage in being The Clean Party.