Who's going to check the generals?
To stimulate the economy is to stimulate corruption. The two go hand-in-hand. The task then is to combat corruption, so that the economy may be stimulated with as little graft as possible.
In Thailand, corruption isn’t just a problem. It’s endemic. The Thai Chamber of Commerce (TCC) has previously estimated that corruption accounted for about 30% of any given development project. Some have said it is as high as 50%.
Bear in mind that these numbers are not scientifically founded. They are but testimonials from insiders. Be that as it may, Thailand is notorious for corruption.
But here’s the thing. Whether it’s the previous Pheu Thai government or the Democrat government before that, there was a system of checks and balances. It was a highly flawed, corruptible and grossly incompetent system. But there were checks and balances nonetheless.
State agencies such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission could investigate. Independent organisations such as the TCC could expose. The media could print stories. For example, through its three-year tenure, the Pheu Thai government couldn’t pass wind without somebody smelling it.
From the first days of introducing populist measures, to the incompetent show of leadership in the 2011 flood crisis, to the notorious rice-pledging scheme and to the infamous 4am-in-the-morning blanket amnesty bill and everything else in between; everything was under scrutiny, from the opposition party to state agencies, the media, NGOs and to anyone with a blog and a video recorder. Checks and balances are integral to democracy.
The question then becomes, who’s going to check and balance the ruling military regime? The answer is, no one. Such is the nature of absolute rule, and therein lies the problem.
The immediate task for the general is two-fold. One is to stimulate the economy. The other is to implement reforms, specifically targeting corruption. In principle, these are fine goals. However, reforms by nature are long-term. Thailand on the other hand needs quick economic stimulants. There are two reasons for this.
First, the Thai economy has taken a beating for too long due to the political crisis, and even before. Second, and more importantly for the general, to pacify dissents and make the people content with military rule, you have to put money in their pockets. This is why it was imperative to procure back payments for the rice farmers under the rice-pledging scheme. This is why the general will roll out measures to stimulate the economy.
But the 30% corruption isn’t going to just disappear simply because the general is now in charge. This is not to say military rule will practice corruption in these economic projects. Surely there should be no accusations before the facts. In addition, understandably those who support the coup d'etat seem to believe that this military rule is incorruptible — that they are the saviours who will rid Thailand of corruption.
For the sake of Thailand, we can hope this would be true. But hope and faith is one thing. To actually have a system of checks and balances is quite another.
Under military rule, there won’t be any MPs scrutinising these projects in parliament. There won’t be any businessmen coming out to discuss if there’s any corruption. State agencies won’t keep watch. NGOs will be kept quiet. The media is of course censored. This is the nature of absolute rule. In short, all we have to go by is faith, the belief that the general will do right. Is this enough?
Unfortunately, it will have to be. That’s the reality. No amount of crying and whining is going to change that. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. As the general has promised, the country will return to democratic elections in 15 months.
During those 15 months, however, the military regime will do as it sees fit. That’s the privilege of being a military regime.
Nonetheless, the general can prove that his goals to clean up corruption and return to democratic power are earnest. He can do this by inviting, not just public opinions, but also scrutiny and criticisms from independent agencies and the media. Even an absolute ruler can practise democratic governance if he so wishes.
Of course, this may be a far-fetched request. But for the general, it is the right thing to do, provided that the fight against corruption is sincere.
Email Voranai Vanijaka at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bangkok Post columnist
Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.