Nagging conscience spurred whistleblower
Student forced to apologise for highlighting graft at state agency
Panida Yotpanya, a 23-year-old intern who exposed irregularities at the Khon Kaen Protection for the Destitute, heard and read a lot about corruption. But she never thought she would be caught in a situation which would turn her into a whistleblower.
Her decision to reveal irregularities, which might have led to her not graduating, has been shaking state agencies after Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on Friday issued an order to transfer top state officials at the Social Development and Human Security Ministry to inactive posts while an investigation into state fund fraud is expanded nationwide.
According to the fourth-year community development major, the internship programme at the centre -- an agency that helps the underprivileged and HIV patients under the supervision of the ministry -- was supposed to be simple and straightforward.
Based on stories from her seniors at Maha Sarakham University, she was to go on field trips with the centre's staff to meet people in need, gather information and write up a report.
"But that is not what has happened. People are used in a scam. That's horrible," she said.
Ms Panida started the internship at the centre in late August last year with three others. Until the end of November, she never set foot outside the office.
Her job was to copy information from the photos of ID cards of dozens of villagers onto official forms and she and her three friends were asked to sign those documents on their behalf. The photos of the ID cards were sent through a mobile application.
"It is forgery of signatures. It's illegal. And if these papers are used in illegal activity, it's us who would end up in jail because we signed the papers," she said.
After bringing the matter to the attention of their parents and the department instructors, it was agreed the students should find a new internship programme elsewhere.
However, when the centre's staff were asked by the department instructors about what happened, they denied anything illegal was going on at the centre and believed it was a misunderstanding.
Ms Panida and the others were told to apologise and they did.
"We were forced to kneel and apologise," she said. "As I did, I asked myself what I did wrong. I brought the issue to the instructors hoping it would be dealt with. It turned out it was a case of misunderstanding.
"I apologised in tears. It was very frustrating."
Ms Panida and her classmates continued with their internship at the centre.
But Ms Panida's discomfort grew and her parents decided the matter must be reported to authorities and they brought evidence to the National Council for Peace and Order and the army's complaint centres.
In her complaint, the student claimed she was told to fill in forms and sign receipts in the names of 2,000 villagers. The documents represented claims worth nearly 7 million baht.
Ms Panida said the three others did not join her, out of concerns about their study.
She said her parents are concerned about possible legal consequences because falsifying signatures is a criminal offence and she is disturbed by the possibility that the helpless are being cheated.
The Public Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) has stepped in and its initial investigation has found that there are sufficient grounds to set up a full investigation.
The agency has widened its inquiry and focused on 37 out of 70 welfare centres across the country suspected of embezzlement, following the Khon Kaen centre scandal.
On Friday, Gen Prayut ordered the transfers of Puttipat Lertchaowasit, permanent secretary for social development and human security, and his deputy, Narong Khongkham, to his office to clear the way for investigations into alleged embezzlement of funds intended for the poor at welfare centres across the country. They were moved for the sake of transparency, not because they are accused of anything in relation to the scam.
Ms Panida said she has chosen community development as her major because she is interested in this field of work and plans to join the public sector after graduation.
"In this line of work, if we turn a blind eye to cheats or corruption and let the people be exploited, it's a shame. We don't do our job and we exploit for them for personal gains, who else can they turn to?" she said.
Ms Panida has been praised and gained a recognition award from the PACC for her act, but some people at the university's department are less enthusiastic. "I don't feel isolated. There are others who understand and see how important it is. They have given me moral support. If we see corruption and dismiss it as none of our business, what would we be left?" she said.