Graft nosedive comes as no surprise at all
'We're disappointed," said Sansern Poljeak of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. Sir, we're more disappointed, as citizens who pay tax without fail, to the government to help the NACC battle corruption.
We were disappointed to hear this week that Thailand has nosedived in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), slipping from 76th to 101th place in the evaluation by the watchdog Transparency International. In a way, the plunge is alarming. At the same time, it's not the biggest surprise in the world. That we're a corrupt country where cash and gifts get passed under the table rather than above it, where every bridge we build and every road we cut and every submarine we order and every school we send our kids to likely involves some kind of invisible ink and stealthy handshake, is a fact of life we've been living with since, what, the 1960s? Chor rat bang luang -- "duping the people and hiding from the state" -- the official term for corruption we learn in elementary school is so beautifully coined for such an ugly meaning.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's reaction to the CPI is, likewise, predictable: Every corruption scandal happened in the past. True to form, he believes all sins were committed by his predecessors, specifically civilian governments, the perennial villains in our feel-good politics. Also true to form, the PM diverted into a surreal terrain, citing horoscope and astrological clairvoyance that 2017 is the year of "exposing the truth".
That civilian governments are corrupt is true. That the military itself, the civil servants and the tentacles of bureaucratic machine and private corporations are also part of the corruption calculus is also true. To blame it all on "the past" is to imply that politicians are sinners and the rest are saints, which time and again has been proven false.
A damning example sits next to the CPI headline, as a 25-year-old case was resurrected to much fanfare: The Rolls-Royce bribery epic involving Thai Airways International (THAI). The dust is still swirling, and while a lot of Royal Orchid executives and cabinet heads are feeling a chill travelling down their spines, don't forget that the military junta of 1992 that had seized power from the elected government of Chartichai Choonhavan was active then. Like the current junta, they hijacked the government with the claim of wiping out corruption. So what happened? At least four air force generals sat on the board of THAI at the time the bribery took place.
Sure, it all happened in the past. Over the past 85 years Thailand has been ruled more by the military than by civilian governments.
Transparency International further explains that the CPI looks at the vicious cycle of corruption and inequality. It questions populism, which claims to narrow the wealth gap but in fact bolsters corruption. The index -- here's our concern -- also summarises the countries that have improved and fallen in the rankings.
The watchdog's report also mentions our new constitution, whose fate remains hanging, and how it will "entrench military power and unaccountable government, undermining eventual return to democratic civilian rule".
It doesn't mention anything about "All corruption cases happened in the past".
Mr Sansern, NACC secretary-general, reeling in disappointment, also asserted upon hearing Thailand's dismal ranking that "being a democratic country" is one of the checklists used to calculate the score. What did he expect? That being a non-democratic country is nobler and less corrupt, because it has righteous people holding top jobs?
I think it's blindingly obvious, but let's repeat it again: Transparency International makes it very clear that accountability is a critical factor in fighting corruption, and in a non-democratic country accountability hardly exists, because your leaders do not have to answer to you or any independent checks-and-balance agencies.
You can't investigate military spending even though the defence budget keeps rising. You can't gather to show disapproval when a megaproject is approved. You don't know what the members of the coup-appointed National Legislative assembly are plotting. You don't know who represents your constituency, because there's no constituency, just one large swath of this faceless nation. This week, an activist was sentenced to jail for boarding a train to Rajabhakti Park to protest -- the military-initiated park that was embroiled in corruption allegations before all involved, of course, were cleared.
Seriously, why are we surprised our CPI ranking dropped?
Kong Rithdee is Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.