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Corruption undermines Thais' trust in democracy

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In Brief

Corruption has existed in Thai society for a long time. It has contributed to the failure of government projects. The Klong-Dan water treatment scandal in the late 1990s spent around 23 billion baht (US$ 638 million) of public funds needlessly. More recently, the rice-pledging scheme suffered losses of around 700 billion baht (US$ 14 billion) but resulted in little concrete improvement in poor farmers’ welfare. These instances provide some evidence of the increasing magnitude of damages caused by corruption.


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Corruption is not only an unsolved problem in Thailand, it’s a worsening one. And its enduring presence has caused more damage to the country than just losses in revenue and slowed progress in national development.

In the long and painful history of corruption in Thailand, only one minister has actually served an imprisonment term for accepting a bribe, while others had somehow managed to stay out of jail. In the Klong-Dan scandal, for example, two former ministers were indicted, but while one passed away before the court’s decision, the other was able to flee the country a few months before being convicted in 2008 and has been living abroad since. Looking at the amount of loss in the rice-pledging policy, one can’t help but wonder why only former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is being charged for negligence.

Thailand’s public could not help but feel hopeless in the fight against corruption. When the military overthrew the elected government in the name of corruption eradication in May 2014, the Thai people paid a high price — in the form of their rights and democratic freedoms — in the hope of ridding the country of the problem. During the past few years, a large number of middleclass Thais, who are often the promoters of democracy elsewhere, have publicly run a campaign called ‘Reform Before Election’. Its rationale is simple: no election can be held until politics is not tarred with corruption. Not all who joined the campaign are totally happy with the junta, but they are desperately tired of seeing their elected representatives corrupted.

Yet the underlining message of the campaign is alarming. It signals the psychological effect of corruption on the Thai people: a loss of trust in the democratic system.

This is not so surprising. From its beginning in 1932, democracy has never been firmly established in Thailand. It has been repeatedly interrupted by military regimes. Unlike other countries in which the people fiercely fought for the right and freedom to rule themselves, the arrival of democracy in Thailand was passive in the sense that the majority of Thais at the time had barely known, let alone asked for, democracy. In their abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, a group of Western-educated military officers and bureaucrats introduced the idea of democracy, an idea that had been — and probably still is — foreign to Thai society.

While it is not clear whether this established some form of military ownership over democracy, some people seem to believe it is the military’s job to intervene when corruption occurs in a democratic government. In the last eight decades or so since democracy’s introduction, coups have successfully removed an elected Thai government from power 13 times.

The last three coups, all of which happened in the past two decades, cited widespread corruption among politicians as their main rationale for action. Seeing the trend, it is possible that a number of middle-aged Thai taxpayers — a large portion of the population that tends to be relatively active economically, politically and socially — perceive democratic government in Thailand as corrupt and the coup as solution to that corruption. A June 2015 opinion poll reported that 75 per cent of respondents supported the military to stay and carry on with its so far .

Yet it is still unclear what is included in the military-proposed reform agenda that could effectively curb corruption. Transparency, checks and balances and political participation are all elements of democracy that supposedly help prevent corruption. But these directly contradict the top-down and secret nature of military regimes.

If the military leaves the scene without establishing norms of transparency and accountability, the Thai people will have to start over with unchecked representative systems for a period of time until check-and-balance mechanisms are re-established. That would not help counter the people’s stereotype about politicians and democracy.

If the military really wishes to solve the corruption problem and promote democracy in Thailand, as it claims, then it needs to institute a culture of transparency, as well as political processes, that enable Thai people to monitor and question their government while it is still in power. Otherwise, the rationale for future military interventions in Thai politics will remain.

Boonwara Sumano is a research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI).

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