Media outlets must not ignore culture of kickbacks
As mainstream print and digital media outlets fiercely follow up on certain political scandals rocking Prayut Chan-o-cha's administration, a small but significantly important news item has quietly slipped from most of the newshounds' attention.
The news item concerns possible irregularities on budget spending for a cultural event called Mor Lam Carnival 2019 which took place between Sept 6-8 in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen. Mor Lam is a popular singing and dance performance which originated in the Northeast. The three-day festival was the third edition of a gathering for Isan stars and entertainers and featured contests, workshops, and panel discussions. A similar event will be held in Bangkok later this year.
However, the carnival, which was enlisted as one of the activities under the province's strategic development plans has turned into a scandal -- albeit low-key -- after it was found this year's budget of 27.4 million baht was higher than the previous two events which only used five million baht each. Suspicion -- and criticism -- is mounting as to why there was a five-fold increase for this year's edition.
Initial reports show that the Tourism Authority of Thailand was the agency responsible for organising the previous two carnivals. However, this year the Khon Kaen cultural office took charge.
Growing criticism over the budget has prompted those involved to clear the air. They claimed the recent carnival, which was presided over by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, was grand, unlike the previous two, with several new activities. Moreover, each carnival-goer returned home with one free kilogramme of sticky rice and it's being claimed that the freebie was given because of complaints about the rise in prices of this staple food for northeasterners.
In short, they are trying to convince the 27.4 million baht budget was justifiable because of these handouts.
However, these claims were countered by Sanyalak Donsri, a renowned mor lam master. Speaking from previous experience in holding such an event over the past years, Mr Sanyalak believes the budget was excessively high. Moreover, the master said that some of his Mor Lam colleagues told him they were paid just 500 baht per day for joining the event.
The Khon Kaen anti-graft office has launched a probe into the Mor Lam case and it is expected to send its findings to the main anti-corruption body in Bangkok. It will take some time before the truth comes out; however, there would be no surprise if kickbacks were involved. It is an open secret that such malpractice is deep-rooted in the bureaucratic system in our society.
In particular, I hope the graft-busters who are working on the Mor Lam case can detect a strong connection between the Nonthaburi-based event organiser and some elements within the army.
There are allegations that such an unusual connection has enabled this event organising company to grab a number of state projects over the past years.
As I said, kickbacks are not uncommon in society. Before the military era, businessmen were required to pay for influence over high-ranking officials in order to win a project.
Yet, most businessmen were willing to since it would just require a one-time extra payment to ensure the matter was resolved. The kickbacks would then be shared among those close to the big bosses while those on the lower rung of the ladder just looked on.
During the regime era, there were also allegations that those who won state projects would have to deal with a herd of sub-contractors -- some of which were people in the same circle of military top brass or their children who hardly had any work experience -- who would delegate the work to experts. In the end, project winners ended up frustrated that they had to pay several times to several people from the top boss down.
What we are seeing before our eyes is that the powers-that-be are gleefully sharing the state budget cake.
This is probably because we are approaching the end of the fiscal year and they still have an enormous budget left to spend while scrutiny is weak.
The Mor Lam saga is only one example of how the state money can be misused.
It's unfortunate that the media seems to use all their resources on political scandals, one after another, and ignore blatant irregularities and kickbacks that discreetly take place instead of digging deep into wrongdoing, exposing it, and nailing those involved to stamp out such malpractices.
Nauvarat Suksamran is as assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.