NCPO must avoid return of patronage
Cronyism is one of the key factors that brought down the otherwise efficient and politically savvy regime of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, people with inside knowledge of the administration have noted over the years.
It would be embarrassing if the coup-makers — keen to steer the country in the opposite direction of the “Thaksin regime” — fall into the same trap.
In the 47 days since the May 22 coup, the junta has transferred more than 60 top government officials.
Since the military is using the special powers of martial law, they need not explain why these people must be moved. And they haven’t really discussed the matter except that it’s for “for the effective administration of the country”.
Some of the bureaucrats were clearly booted out to the land of inactive posts because they are seen as having close ties to Thaksin or the previous government led by Yingluck Shinawatra.
These include former PM’s Office permanent secretary Thongthong Chandrangsu, former Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre secretary-general Thawee Sodsong or former Metropolitan police chief Kamronwit Thoopkrachang.
Others may have lost their positions because they were responsible for “problematic” schemes such as the rice-pledging or migrant labour registration projects. These include some top officials at the commerce and labour ministries.
In most of the transfer cases, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) appointed the next-in-line official to replace them.
But in a few cases the junta chose people from other circles. Mr Thongthong at the Government House, for example, was replaced by Interior deputy permanent secretary ML Panadda Diskul.
Again, the top brass did not give any reason why ML Panadda deserves to be promoted to the job. This does not mean he is not a capable official. He could very well be but there has been no discussion of his merits or capabilities.
There are also cases in which the new appointees are previous holders of the positions. Mr Thawee at the SBPAC, for example, was replaced by Panu Utairat, who had earlier been shifted from the SBPAC to the Interior Ministry by the Yingluck government to pave the way for Mr Thawee himself in 2011.
Another case in the musical-chairs reshuffle is Khunying Porntip Rojanasunan who has been reappointed as director-general of the Central Institute of Forensic Science after being shifted out of the position last year.
Such cases have raised concerns that the junta’s reforms mean replacing Thaksin’s network with the military’s. The question is whether the country is witnessing only a superficial change of guard which does not necessarily mean better protection for ordinary citizens.
During his televised address last week, coup leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha touched on the topic. He said the ongoing transfer of the senior officials was being done for “appropriateness”.
The coup leader hit the nail on the head when he said the seemingly wholesale transfer of top-level officials does not mean the junta is replacing one interest group with another.
He said it’s necessary for the junta to remove the heads of some government units as it seeks to unearth corruption and conflicts of interest. He also asked for understanding saying it is difficult to find officials who are not linked to any past governments to do these tasks.
But Gen Prayuth’s most important point was his last one. He said the junta is trying to rebuild the bureaucracy so it can be a strong force producing good work for the King and country.
What the NCPO has done so far, which is transferring some officials to inactive post without a clear explanation of what have they done wrong and appointing new ones without providing supporting evidence of how it will help them achieve the goals, is highly questionable.
This concern is not limited to the mass transfer of officials but extends to other tasks the coup-makers have set themselves.
The NCPO is reassigning projects involving trillions of baht and reallocating precious resources. It risks criticism of trying to shift benefits from one set of cronies to another if it does so in this dictatorial manner.
The blanket power of martial law is keeping things under wraps. No dissent has surfaced because it is not allowed. The special powers must end once a civilian government is formed to lead the country back to electoral democracy.
The unexplained transfers could become seeds of discontent that the junta will have to face once martial law is lifted to pave the way for a transition of power supposedly to take place in September.
Atiya Achakulwisut is Contributing Editor, Bangkok Post.
Columnist for the Bangkok Post
Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.