Corruption without a moral backstop
published : 15 Jan 2021 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
For Thailand, Covid-19 has become an unwitting spotlight that has exposed shadowy closets and drawers where corruption and graft have long festered. In the past, Thailand's dirty deeds and illegal wrongdoings operated within certain parameters set by a semblance of moral authority at the top echelons of Thai society. But in recent years, moral turpitude has set in while the sense of moral backstop has faded. As this trend intensifies, Thailand risks suffering political decay, social decadence and economic stagnation, while impunity and immorality reign without boundaries.
As the second wave of Covid-19 has nearly tripled Thailand's case numbers in just one month from over 4,000 infections in mid-December to nearly 12,000, the driver and direction of this surge are telling. Relative to the rest of the world, this sudden spike is understandable because virus numbers have jumped during the winter months in northern climates and cooler climes in the tropics. Other countries elsewhere have faced a much more dire virus situation, with daily numbers regularly in a four-digit range.
What is less understandable and excusable about Thailand's Covid situation is that it has revealed a nexus of corruption, government incompetence, and a lack of vision going forward at the expense of public health. We have learned that Thailand has illegal gambling dens throughout many of its provinces, tied up with prostitution, extortion, bribery, racketeering, and the entire black underbelly of the economy.
It is clear now that entertainment complexes on the Myanmar side of the Thai-Myanmar border formed one major cluster of infections. Migrant workers from Myanmar, who needed jobs in the Thai economy as much as Thai businesses needed their backbreaking work, have been another. Both Thai and Myanmar workers who traversed the long and porous border have had to bribe middlemen and local officials, particularly the army and police, to earn their living.
The army and police officers, in turn, exploit their positions and authority to bend the law for private gains. This process of seeking "rent" by using public and official positions and roles for private and personal gains and benefits is commonplace all over the world. They can be a petty policeman accepting a bribe for a traffic infraction or a cabinet minister peddling influence to procure lucrative projects from the state for a hefty commission. There are even global surveys to measure and rank such rent-seeking prevalence and degree by country, such as Transparency International.
Most countries with low transparency and high corruption ranking tend to make efforts at cleaning up, or at least trying to be seen to clean up. But not Thailand. What is different now is that corruption and graft are becoming structural and systematic, running away unimpeded without the pretense of law enforcement and official suppression.
This is why Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has effectively conceded that gambling dens are out there, admitted that he is unable to eradicate them, and is pleading with the public for cooperation and understanding. It is the same reason Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon initially denied that local casinos existed only to reverse himself soon after by dismissing them as a police matter.
Covid-19 is an amplifier because gamblers punt in close proximity, making it easy for the virus to proliferate. The more cases that come up, the more news of newly discovered illegal gambling in this and that province emerge. Illegal gambling works in cahoots with local police who provide protection and a blind eye for a fee, which is known to be passed up the chain of command. How high this chain reaches these days is unclear. But in the past, such illicit activities perpetrated by state officials operated with limitations because the few at the top frowned on and outright disapproved of corruption and graft.
The late Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, for example, was known and seen as financially incorruptible. When he was prime minister in 1980-88, corruption scandals involving cabinet ministers or senior bureaucrats were investigated and answerable. To be sure, Gen Prem's political manoeuvres in later years as president of the Privy Council became controversial and criticised. He was a broker for both the 2006 and 2014 coups, for instance, and took sides with the pro-establishment forces against pro-democracy activists. But it was critical that Gen Prem was not the financially corrupt type Thais are all too familiar with. Those under him in the military and politics knew that moral authority mattered. Corruption and graft still prevailed but within limits and without the luxury of impunity.
The same might be said of Gen Surayud Chulanont who served as a coup-appointed prime minister for 15 months in 2006-07. He set up a technocratic cabinet, kept corruption at bay, maintained the election timetable against the coup-makers' preference for a delay, and left on time in December 2007. When it was discovered that his mountainside home in the northeast was on public land, Gen Surayud had his resort dwelling removed.
This sense of what is right and wrong in public policy and in the public domain, as distinct from political partisanship and politicking manoeuvres, appears to be absent now. When the Thai cabinet includes a drug convict in violation of the constitution and an aficionado of questionable and pricey wristwatches, and when the prime minster himself sold his family-owned land to an oligarch in an offshore deal, moral authority suffers because state officials down below will see it as an example and a free rein to line their own pockets as long as they pass up some of the proceeds.
The corruption and graft among government officials and military and police officers are likely to add fuel to the fire of social discontent among youth-led anti-establishment protesters and activists. When Covid restrictions are loosened, they probably will return to campuses and the streets to demand more competent and accountable rulers. When this happens, those who will ask again and again about who is backing such protests need to look at Thailand's decadence, decay, and stagnation as the real backers. This is why the student-led protesters will keep going for their country's better future and for themselves.
Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University
A professor and senior fellow 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.