Combatting corruption starts at the top

Combatting corruption starts at the top

Those four engines on the Thai Airways International Airbus A340-500 rolled out in 2005 are the subject of confessions by Rolls Royce it paid bribes of more than $1 million apiece to get the airline to purchase them. (File photo)
Those four engines on the Thai Airways International Airbus A340-500 rolled out in 2005 are the subject of confessions by Rolls Royce it paid bribes of more than $1 million apiece to get the airline to purchase them. (File photo)

There is something fundamentally similar and entwined about the need to tackle Thailand's endemic corruption and the imperative to reform its education. Education reforms and corruption eradication appear to be the two highest policy and social priorities over the decades but they have made little headway. In view of recent international assessments, Thai education has fallen even farther behind compared to recent years. Similarly, according to Thailand's declining ranking in international indexes such as that of Transparency International, the scourge of corruption in this country has deepened.

However, wiping out corruption should be more doable and pressing because it has now fallen into the jurisdiction of other countries. As Thai law and legal institutions are weak, Thailand's corruption is being exposed abroad. All the Thai authorities have to do is to pick up and pursue cases that other countries with a stronger rule of law and institutions have revealed. But it appears the Thai authorities do not really want to go after corruption because it is too close to their hearts and pockets. If corruption is dealt with in Thailand, it may be the case that very few, if any, of the big fish will be proven to be clean.

Take the case of the recent Rolls-Royce corruption scandal exposed by the United Kingdom's Serious Fraud Office. This is a British company that has admitted under British law that it has systematically paid off "agents of the state of Thailand and employees of Thai Airways" to aid in the procurement of its engines. There has been a lot of huff and puff in the news headlines. As the country's national flag carrier, Thai Airways has made perfunctory statements about its intent to get to the bottom of the matter. Thailand's watchdog agencies, such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Office of the Auditor-General, have made noises about investigations.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

But there has been no progress, and there will be no progress, just as has often been the case in the past. Despite a public outcry, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is not willing to use his magic wand of tackling the matter with absolute authority under Section 44. Here is a graft case that has been handed to the Thai authorities on a platter yet they seem reluctant to go after it with the full energy and force of what remains of Thai law.

Corruption allegations at Thai Airways have been frequent over the years. One of the earlier cases at the national airline centred on the purchase of the four-engine A340 airbus planes for newly open direct routes to New York and Los Angeles, involving the government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and conflicts of interest among his associates and relatives. Without a cost-benefit study, the routes bled financial losses until they had to be discontinued, while the fuel-guzzling four-engine planes had to be sold off with the remainder left unused. State enterprises are microcosms of corruption in Thailand because they involve shady abuses of power underpinned by social hierarchy, patronage and cronyism.

But airline engines procurement should be seen together with corruption allegations elsewhere. The United States Securities and Exchange Commission has alleged that bribes were paid involving a US company in the procurement of CCTV for Thailand's parliament in 2006. The current National Legislative Assembly chairman has pledged an investigation of this but of course there has been zero tangible progress in nabbing the culprits.

Moreover, the US Department of Justice has taken up a case against a US manufacturer of cable and wire, General Cable Corporation, for dubious procurement in dealings with Thailand's Metropolitan Electricity Authority, Provincial Electricity Authority, and TOT Plc. Again, this is a Thai corruption case connected to an American firm being spotlighted by US regulatory authorities. Thailand's regulatory and legal wherewithal is evidently insufficient to deal with the corruption of its own state enterprises.

These cases tell us that they are just the tip of the iceberg and that corruption lurks in many more places. There are also different forms and degrees of corruption. Some are soft "in-kind" exchanges of favours with personal gains at the expense of public resources. Others are harder and more familiar, such as government procurement entailing commissions, and kickbacks.

The reason corruption is not forcefully addressed in Thailand is because we don't know where to start with the powerful few involved. Those at the top who are supposed to eliminate corruption must be clean and willing to confront and prosecute culprits in a networked society where the degrees of social separation are very small. Going after corruption means going after crooks you and your friends and family may know.

If the few at the top are soft on corruption, or even become accessories or perpetrators in it, then it will only further embed itself. In turn, allowing corruption among the big fish exacerbates the mindset and culture of wrongful and undue entitlements. With bad examples all around, some Thai people in certain positions then think they can get away with petty graft and outright theft, such as the recent case of the deputy director-general of the commerce ministry who blatantly took paintings from a hotel in Japan without asking or paying. The Japanese have been kind on technicalities to let him off the hook but Thai authorities should make an example of him. They probably won't, and he will probably move on in life despite his thievery being vivid in the public consciousness.

But this particular senior bureaucrat will likely rationalise to himself that he is only one among many, that there are people who are higher than him and not devoid of graft and conflicts of interest. Perhaps he will see another bigger case, where Thailand's mega liquor-centred conglomerate was given a lease extension on operating the National Convention Centre in Bangkok without any competitive bidding and with no questions asked by the Thai authorities. In this case, the thief of Japanese paintings may well comfort himself that his deed cost Thailand much less, and that he did not benefit as much as the liquor conglomerate whose patriarch allegedly bought the land of the prime minister's father in an off-shore transaction worth several hundred million baht.

It is time to stop Thailand's anti-corruption pretension and hypocrisy and get serious. We don't need any more laws against corruption, only more good examples of those who are clean and having enough power and will to go after those who are corrupt in the higher echelons of society. When the big fish start to get caught, corruption and graft will decline and Thailand's ranking in anti-corruption indexes will rise.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak


A professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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