The Farce of Thai Corruption Cleanup

The pot calling the kettle black is the newest normal in the government of the self-appointed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Claiming to eradicate rampant corruption allegedly cultivated by the regime of former Prime Minister Thaksin Thaksin Shinawatra, Prayuth arrived at political power with an adamant mission to cleanse Thai politics. Obviously, blaming and the recently deposed government of Yingluck Shinawatra, his sister, was a winning tactic to legitimize the coup of 22 May.

But as it has turned out, Prayuth’s handpicked Cabinet members are not any cleaner than the supposedly corrupt Shinawatras. Last month, an anti-Thaksin figure, Minister of the Prime Ministerial Office, M.L. Panadda Diskul, also a member of Thai royalty, was swamped in a series of corruption allegations. He was supposedly responsible for the refurbishment of the meeting room at the Government House. Sets of state-of-the art microphones and electronic curtains were ordered at much higher prices than they are normally on sale on the Internet.

Scrutinized by the public, Panadda, who earlier condemned the Thaksin regime and its infectious corruption practices found in the bureaucratic system, immediately evaded the allegations and disappeared from the public eye. Prayuth solved the issue by returning the expensive microphones and curtains without any serious probes into the murky purchases.

But the latest corruption allegations could seriously pose a challenge to Prayuth’s regime. As part of appointment of the members of the National Legislative Council (NLC), they are required to reveal their assets and properties to determine if they are “unusually rich.” In the beginning, a number of members were reluctant to disclose their wealth status. For example, Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, president of the NLC, refused to unveil his assets, citing that some were too “priceless” to be estimated for their values.

But the eventual revelation of the NLC members’ assets shocked many Thais. Police chief Somyos Poompanmuang has more than Bt374 million ((S$11.4 million worth of personal assets, raising the question of how serving in the police throughout his life could have made him a millionaire. Another shocking case has been that of Prayuth’s own brother, General Preecha Chan-ocha, who was also selected to serve in the NLC.

Preecha declared that he had closer to Bt90 million in assets, and said he believed he would get away with any investigation of why he became “unusually rich.”

Members of the social media networks in Thailand have started to speculate about the sources of Preecha’s wealth. Recently he elaborated that he might have been wrongly adding the budget of the army into his own bank account, a statement met with incredulity.

But Thais are not expecting that Prayuth will look into his own brother’s case. It could end up like earlier cases which simply weren’t mentioned in the press under the assumption that soon people would forget about it.

A few days ago, Prayuth appeared angry when Thais demanded transparency on the part of the government. He reportedly said, “I beg you not to dig up anything. There is no benefit in so doing. My government is here today to solve problems. I have so many burdens on my shoulder and cannot really get away. My wife is also in this difficult situation. I just want some kind of moral support from you. I need your understanding. But the media has tried to dig up many issues. So have some politicians. I must say that you cannot do that for the time being.”

Ironically, the government, which has claimed to function as a model of good governance, has continued to sink into controversy. The rationale behind the coup was to get rid of chronic corruption, but it is now apparent that the Prayuth government has instead further exacerbated the corruption crisis. Worse, neither the media nor the public are willing to bring out the reality behind the corruption for fear of their own safety. At the end of the day, Thailand is still under martial law and the National Council of Peace and Order—the governing body of the coup makers—has remained the sole sovereign of the Thai state.

Politics à la Prayuth are also indicative of anxiety hidden in the mind of the army and its supporters in the palace. The May 22 coup wasn’t meant to tackle the so-called corruption problem, since the coup makers themselves are not free from corruption allegations.

The coup was staged in order to ensure that representatives of the palace would be able to take control of politics at the critical time of the royal succession. The stakes are too high to allow Thaksin proxies to be in charge at this point. Thus, they had to be eliminated. And corruption represents a classic reason behind a supposedly legitimate move to topple the Thaksin-backed regime.

But the case of Prayuth’s brother bring up the inconvenient fact again that both military men and politicians can be equally sullied. The more positive part of it is that, at least, politicians are elected by the people and they can be thoroughly scrutinized. Of course, the worse part of this is that the military chose to use the coup to justify its existence in politics against the public will. In a closed system like a military regime, requests for transparency and good government often fall on deaf ears.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.