Ombudsmen's new rules a folly
The Office of Ombudsman's new travel regulations that allow ombudsmen's spouses to claim per diem and other benefits while travelling abroad have drawn heavy criticism, if not public anger. The backlash is well justified.
The rules which took effect on Jan 29 after being announced in the Royal Gazette, were reported by local media and caused a stir. The agency abolished the 2012 and 2014 travel regulations, which covered only the ombudsmen's expenses during domestic and overseas trips, and replaced them with a new version that allows spouses to claim similar benefits during overseas trips which include meetings, workshops, seminars and study tours. The benefits include all travel expenses and a 3,100 baht daily allowance; or any real expenses they incur not exceeding 4,500 baht a day. This means a couple could claim almost 10,000 baht a day!
The total cost could be enormous as it is likely, with such prestigious positions, they will opt to fly business or first class and stay in expensive hotels, as well as claiming costs for clothes, albeit with restrictions.
Although the rules stipulate that each trip requires approval from the office's president, a simple question nevertheless arises: Why do spouses have to join overseas tours? How will the state benefit from having spouses accompanying ombudsmen during international meetings, workshops, seminars or study tours?
Not to mention that a "study tour" is a problematic term in itself in Thailand as state officials have frequently been caught abusing the system and simply turning it into a leisure trip, fully supported by taxpayers' money. It is not uncommon to hear about state officials using a brief formal session as an excuse for a foreign holiday complete with time spent shopping and visiting tourist attractions. Indeed, most of these trips typically included accompanying spouses or family members.
There are plenty of examples of illegitimate trips.
Early in 2017, the Office of the Auditor-General made headlines when it penalised the administration of a Chiang Mai-based University for misusing state money on a nine-day overseas "study tour" in 2014. The investigation which included the examination of travel documents revealed that most of the activities engaged in during this trip were not related to education.
The case was forwarded to the National Anti-Corruption Commission while the rector and some in the administration were told to pay back more than six million baht to the university and also faced a disciplinary probe for misuse of state money and graft.
In fact, such illegitimate trips are known to be popular among national and local agencies such as tambon administration organisations. It's typical that a meeting will be combined with a study tour. Many times, the truth has come out when unthinking officials have shared photos on social media of themselves and their colleagues having a great time during the trips, savouring expensive food and wine.
Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, in his capacity as the regime leader, previously raised concerns about those trips, which involve rampant misuse of state money, and attempted to restrict them to "only necessary ones", but it is an open secret that a number of state agencies managed to breach the PM's order using loopholes in various regulations.
Of course, the spouses of some important figures like the prime minister and cabinet ministers may occasionally accompany their other half on certain trips, as there is a clear role for them on particular missions, such as state or official visits. But the role of ombudsmen's spouses during meetings or workshops is dubious. How do they contribute to the trip's success? It's difficult to tell. Will it be a case of tax-money well spent? Very unlikely.
The Office of Ombudsman is putting its reputation at risk by issuing doubtful regulations which clearly already merit a probe.
It owes the public a good explanation for its decision to green-light a new code which only seems likely to magnify conflicts of interest, if not ill-gotten gains, by an agency supposed to scrutinise the performance of state officials to ensure transparency and good governance.
If the ombudsmen are not shaken by the criticism and still insist on adopting these regulations, it's the duty of state auditors, the anti-graft body and society at large to keep a close watch to ensure that there is no foul play with some elements wrongfully enjoying taxpayers' money for illegitimate leisure.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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