Are we graft-busting yet?

Are we graft-busting yet?

The charges allege that the nation’s most admired crime fighter, former Central Investigation Bureau chief Pongpat Chayapan, used his influence and a gang of insiders to run a massive corruption-and-violence operation. They allege the gang made so much money they literally could not spend it, and had to hoard it.

The list of crimes here is longer than the rap sheet of the brother-sister tag-team of prime ministers. The tamest, obvious ones are bribery and intimidation, racketeering and money laundering. Then come dealing in protected species, part of the loot being rare animal hides and wood from endangered trees — 60 lorry loads of that.

Worse is aiding the southern insurgency, which raises questions of whether taking bribes from shady enemies of the state in the deep South constitutes simple treason. There is lese majeste, a violation seldom seen in corruption cases.

Police also allege that members of the same family led a violent money-lending gang. Pol Lt Gen Pongpat and aides have been charged with abduction as part of their big-time loan-sharking projects. The three arrested family members and two other alleged gang members, also civilians, were taken to an undisclosed military base.

It’s useful to remind the public on just how fabulously well corruption pays.

These people had to build underground vaults to hold their loot. It costs money to house two, three, maybe five billion baht, along with the antiquities, treasures, amulets, ivory, jewellery and the like. If you have that much, you have to spend a lot just for the garages to house your luxury cars.

What was missing from the events was a signal that this was undertaken by the NCPO, masterminded by the government or led by the National Reform Committee.

On the contrary. Everyone learned from the national police chief exactly what the police chief wanted them to learn, at the time he chose to tell or show them.

It was telling that the founder and head of reform, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, seemed unaware of the operation against Pol Lt Gen Pongpat until it hit the headlines. That’s when he said: “The police have my full support,” and did not say, “This operation, which I ordered ... ”

Also taking no role in the corruption case inflaming front pages and lighting up TV’s nightly news is the country’s official graft fighter. The National Anti-Corruption Commission wasn’t publicly concerned with the biggest corruption case of the moment. Nor did the police or reform chief invite the NACC to get involved. The National Reform Committee was completely sidelined.

The Department of Special Investigation got no call from police asking for help. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, the eminence grise of the coup, now in charge of security affairs, indicated on Thursday he was still being brought up to speed on the Pongpat case, noting only in general that, “Tackling corruption is at the top of the national agenda.”

Considering all the people and all the ministries and all the agencies who aren’t involved, this could be the most impressive and credible case ever of the police department investigating itself.

The answer to the headline, though, is: “No”.

The Pongpat case involves corruption at every level — legal, moral, ethical. The justice system moves slowly, but any court in the land would convict all the prominent players involved if the trial actually were to begin tomorrow. It’s going to take clever lawyers a lot of time to extricate clients in actual court cases to come.

But last week’s news was not next week’s reform bill, next year’s police restructuring or 2016’s clean election. It seemed more vendetta than vindication.

For most people, the allegations against Pol Lt Gen Pongpat and friends were not shocking revelations about trusted public servants gone bad. They were confirmation of the lifestyle and daily routine at police headquarters throughout the country. Shaking down businesses, intimidating vendors, forcing subordinates to pay for promotions and cushy duty stations — these are ingrained necessities of the system often called patronage.

The Pongpat case showed that Pol Gen Somyot is capable of ridding his headquarters of a troublesome person in one important department of his police force. He has not indicated yet that he intends to lead a systematic clean-up against systemic corruption.

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