Film fete case shows glacial pace of reform

It’s about time. The case has been cold but not closed, and justice delayed is more consoling than justice abandoned. After eight years, the Office of the Attorney General finally charged Juthamas Siriwan, ex-governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), for allegedly taking 60 million baht in kickbacks from an American firm in exchange for a contract to run the ill-fated Bangkok International Film Festival between 2003 and 2007. She has 15 days to show her face at the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, or face an arrest warrant.

One only prays that Ms Juthamas, who must have known a lot about foreign destinations given her old job as tourism chief, hasn’t learned tips from Vatana Asavahame, who fled the country in the tradition of a desperate (and wealthy) criminal, his GPS unknown since 2008, after being convicted for his involvement in the Klong Dan waste water treatment plant. Great minds think alike, of course.

If this were a film, it would not be The Shawshank Redemption (though prison is a likely set up). The scandal around the now-defunct Bangkok International Film Festival has been one of the most humiliating incidents of bureaucratic corruption, and a costly lesson in Thailand’s cultural management policy, or the lack thereof, because if there had been one the bribery saga wouldn’t have festered. If it sounds like I’m rubbing salt into the wound, yes, I’m gladly doing it: amid all the fancy talk about promoting the creative industry, about competing with South Korea in pop-culture exports, we couldn’t even host a simple, decent film festival. The future is even bleaker now that we’re officially in the age of patriotic film-making and movie propaganda.

No matter how tight her connections are, Ms Juthamas must have been prepared for this. With the FBI and undercover agents involved, the plot is worthy of a trans-Pacific thriller with no real heroes and plenty of despicable villains. In 2007, the US Department of Justice arrested an American couple, Gerald and Patricia Green, for bribing the governor of the TAT so that their company secured the deal to organise the Bangkok festival. The initial FBI affidavit — which includes a report about its agent shadowing the suspects to a meeting in a posh Bangkok hotel — didn’t name the Thai official who allegedly took the $1.7 million kickback, but the governor during that period was Ms Juthamas. After the news broke she denied any involvement, but resigned from the Puea Pandin Party and pulled out of the general election just days before voters went to the polls.

It’s the peanut-butter-hit-the-fan moment. The news, and the stench, spread around the international film community like exploded cesspools, and I remember countless occasions when I was teased and sympathised with on my visits to film festivals in many cities. The Greens were convicted of conspiracy and money laundering; in 2010 they were sentenced to six months in prison. But a big question mark has hung in the air since: if the party that paid the bribe was already punished, why not those who received it? Those who’re clearly a part of the conspiracy and committed the crimes of colluding to squander tax money on illegal partners, as well as enriching themselves for doing just that.

Various Los Angeles papers ran a detailed account of how the Greens created proxy companies to pay the bribe and how the governor’s daughter was also named as one of the recipients. Still, the Thai investigation proceeded slowly, though it’s fair to expect the FBI report to contain enough incriminating evidence on the Thai officials. Now that the Greens — the husband is now in his 80s — have already served their term, at least it’s a development on our side that Ms Juthamas has been formally charged.

The scandal has exposed corrupt bureaucrats, but beyond that surface crime it also exposes sad consequences of misguided policies and the ease with which greed can exploit the enthusiasm to embrace “the culture”. How come a tourism board was put in charge of a movie festival, when they admitted repeatedly that they never cared about film and only about the red carpet? What’s worse is that the name “Bangkok International Film Festival” is now and forever dirtied to the point that no agencies will want to bring it up again. 

But there’s a deeper implication: What the case has also shown is that while our post-coup “reform” — that term must be caged in apostrophes from now on — seems to focus only on keeping out crooked politicians and their families, bureaucrats (and sometimes their families) aren’t always a pure force of honesty. Real reform must include a shake-up of that ancient system that sleeps in the same bed as whoever is in power. Like Ms Juthamas’ charges, it’s about time.

Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist