Elections, corruption and Thai democracy

Elections, corruption and Thai democracy

Former national police chief Somyot Poompunmuang was in a jovial mood as he visited the DSI to claim he had borrowed 300 million baht from a brothel owner, much like the deputy prime minister borrows his watches. (Photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)
Former national police chief Somyot Poompunmuang was in a jovial mood as he visited the DSI to claim he had borrowed 300 million baht from a brothel owner, much like the deputy prime minister borrows his watches. (Photo by Tawatchai Kemgumnerd)

People at home and abroad are calling for elections in Thailand on the premise of returning democracy to a country that has been under nearly four years of military government. But elections cannot bring genuine democracy if blatant corruption rears its head in open daylight with utter impunity. No doubt elections will be needed to get rid of the current set of military rulers but democracy in Thailand requires the strengthening of its democratic institutions that are so shoddy and woeful.

In recent weeks, three eye-catching scandals concurrently surfaced and became predictably conflated and murky. It began with a number of dubious luxury watches worn in public by Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon. Subsequent investigation by civil society members on social media, particularly "CSI LA" discovered some 25 of these high-priced time pieces that add up to more than $1 million, undeclared in Gen Prawit's assets statements and unknown as to whether they have been properly taxed. Unconvincingly, Gen Prawit insisted that they belong to his friends and were already returned.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

Amidst a public outcry over what may have been typical bribes being whitewashed as unproven borrowings, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha stood by his deputy minister in an unwavering gesture of loyalty attributable to their decades of military service together. Gen Prawit conceded that he could resign if the public wanted him to. Although public surveys overwhelmingly pointed to the exit door, Gen Prawit reneged and stood his ground. Now the generals are just riding out the storm and ignoring public sentiment.

In turn, Gen Prawit's watch scandal has further lowered the already abysmal accountability and transparency standards in Thailand. It also has eroded whatever that remains of the military government's credibility and legitimacy from the time it came to power after the May 2014 coup. Gen Prawit's watches are just the last straw in a long line of other graft scandals since the coup, from a public park construction to arms procurement and nepotism, not to mention routine human rights violations and exercises of absolute power at the expense of public participation.

To be sure, the Prayut government is now morally bankrupt. Whatever it does now can no longer be trusted. Either it is doing this and that for political gains with an eye on post-election power, or it is for vested interests -- or both.

When big fish like Gen Prawit can get away scot-free, others will follow. So the case of former national police chief Somyot Poompunmuang, who happens to be current president of the Football Association of Thailand, should come as no surprise. After it was found that he was in possession of 300 million baht from a fugitive owner of Victoria's Secret Massage, a brothel belonging to Kampol Wirathepsuporn, Pol Gen Somyot also hid behind the veil of friendly borrowing. Yes, he simply borrowed a huge sum from the brothel tycoon who is on the run pending a criminal prosecution involving human trafficking.

Pol Gen Somyot has been even more nonchalant than Gen Prawit in addressing public scrutiny. It is as if he is above and beyond the law. Who, among the 230,000-strong Thai police force, would have the temerity to question him? All of Thailand's policemen cannot catch Pol Gen Somyot even if they try. He knows the system too well, and national police chiefs don't get to the top without influential networks of subordinates and connections to those in political power.

The leadership that is needed to take Pol Gen Somyot to task must come from the highest authority. But Gen Prayut is politically neutered and lame now because of Gen Prawit's watches, lacking any more high ground whatsoever. So now the Department of Special Investigation, which is replete with former police officers, will likely make noises leading to nowhere about Pol Gen Somyot, just as the National Anti-Corruption Commission has been doing about Gen Prawit.

Unsurprisingly, when construction tycoon Premchai Karnasuta was arrested for allegedly hunting wildlife in a World Heritage sanctuary in Kanchanaburi province, only the naive would think that someone like him would end up in jail, as he is president of Italian-Thai Development Plc (ITD), which his family started and is listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand. ITD is engaged in myriad construction projects in many parts of the country, including Bangkok and Kanchanaburi areas along the Thai-Myanmar border. Mr Premchai's arrest has already taken twists and turns that don't bode well for the rule of law.

The Premchai case, as with others involving members of ultra wealthy and powerful businesses, is unlikely to be straightforward. Thailand does not have a culture of legal accountability and public responsibility compared to countries such as Japan and South Korea. High-powered Japanese and South Korean businessmen and politicians regularly have been put on trial and admitted to their wrongdoing through resignation. The most recent case is a 20-year prison sentence for Choi Soon-sil, a confidante of former president Park Geun-hye, who herself is under arrest on charges of influence-peddling.

It is disheartening to recall that in the 1980s South Korea was looking at Thailand for anti-corruption leadership. The then-Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang was feted in South Korea as a model of integrity, frugality and hard work. Since then, there has been no Thai model of honesty in high office that other countries have paid attention to.

Accordingly, there is a huge gap between elections and democracy in Thailand. It does not mean that elections are not needed, but no one should be under the illusion that democracy will automatically manifest itself thereafter. Stronger accountability-promoting institutions over time are needed to usher in a lasting democratic system, perhaps starting with the police force. This will take time, and will need to be led by good examples. While calls for polls are valid and should be heeded, bridging the gap between elections and democracy should be the most pressing priority in Thai politics.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches International Relations and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.

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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