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The Corrupt Pursuit of Corruption

The big issue for the ‘we’re never going away no matter how many deadlines we miss’ PDRC protesters is clearly corruption.  This to them is the number one problem facing the nation.  It is also the number one failing of the Thaksin clan of cronies and clones, and the reason why the kingdom must be rid them.

Now it may come as a horrible shock to anyone who has followed Thai politics for the last 20 years, but Thaksin has not been convicted on a criminal charge of corruption. 

He should have been.  Many times over, starting with the assets concealment case that almost stopped his Prime Ministerial career before it had got started.  This was back in 2001 when Thai Rak Thai had just upset the apple cart of Thai politics by as near as dammit winning a clear majority.

Thaksin was then charged with concealing assets in an earlier declaration.  Millions and millions of baht’s worth of shares had been parked in the name of his domestic staff and had therefore gone unreported.  His defence was that use of nominees in this way was a common practice among the share-holding classes (I wouldn’t know about this myself, not being a shareholder.  Or gardener) – an ‘honest mistake’.

At this point, the Constitutional Court embarked on a roller-coaster of ‘let’s make it up as we go along’ verdicts.  You would have thought that the wise minds that had percolated to the top of the judiciary would have realized the need for a simple two-step process.  First you decide if the case falls within the purview of the court; if it does, then judge it.

Instead, under some intense pressure, they tried to do both things at once.  After the Court accepted the case for consideration, 4 judges said they didn’t think this was a Constitutional Court matter, 7 said guilty and 4 said not guilty.  Some dodgy arithmetic that counted apples as if they were pears then made this a majority for acquittal.  And the careers of the 7 who found against Thaksin, and of their families, took an immediate nosedive. 

Now Thaksin’s one criminal conviction was the Ratchada land case where Thaksin’s then wife Pojaman won a sealed-bid auction for a plot of land near the Thailand Cultural Centre owned by the Financial Institutions Development Fund.  This investigation was initiated by the Asset Examination Committee, an ad hoc agency created by the military junta behind the 2006 coup.  The AEC was charged with uncovering the corruption that had motivated the military to take over.  Were they ever going to find none?  The idea of a witch hunt was never very far away.

Pojaman had outbid 2 publicly listed companies, paid more per rai than the FIDF had collected on 2 other nearby plots, and her offer was higher than the Land Department’s evaluation.  The Bank of Thailand and FIDF had repeatedly said they couldn’t see where the state had been cheated.

Ah, said the Thaksin-corruption-hunters, but it was barely more than a third than the price the FIDF had paid when it acquired the land.  From a certain Erawan Trust, chaired by ex-PM Chatichai Choonhavan, whose government had been overthrown by the military in the 1991 coup for …, yes, you guessed it, corruption.  The financially floundering Erawan Trust was, uniquely among the numerous speculative outfits that crashed and burned in the 1990’s, allowed to sell assets to the FIDF at, er, suspiciously favourable prices.  They did this 4 times, twice under the Banharn ‘Mr ATM’ Silpa-acha government and twice more during the Chuan Leekpai administration.  The Democrat-led Chuan administration.  Many of whose ex-members are now appearing nightly on a stage near you denouncing corruption.

Eventually the charge was narrowed down to the fact that as a married woman Pojaman needed hubby’s signature on her bid.  (The evidence was provided by Veera Somkwamkid, currently doing porridge in Cambodia for spying and illegal entry.  Nitithorn Lamlua, advisor to the Network of Students and People for Thailand’s Reform and would-be invader of the US Embassy, has called from a PDRC stage for Veera’s release.)  And there was a law that said that political office holders and their spouses were barred from entering into contracts with government agencies directly under their charge.

So is a bid a contract?  Any more than the Minister of Finance having a bank account?  Or the Minister of Energy paying his electricity bills?  And since the FIDF is under the BoT and the BoT for very good reason is not under the control of the PM, was this deal covered by the law?

The matter was settled by the AEC in an interesting way.  It called BoT Governor of the time MR Pridiyathorn Devakula (currently writer of open letters to the media on the corruption of the current government) to testify in private, without Thaksin’s lawyer present.  And guess what, they found that as PM, Thaksin was in charge of everything. 

The case, now one of abuse of authority rather than corruption, went to the Supreme Court (Criminal Division) for Holders of Political Office, a quaint corner of the Thai judiciary that, as its name implies, allows judges to deliver political verdicts … I mean, verdicts in political cases.  Thaksin was found guilty and given 2 years, from which he is still on the lam.

But interestingly the Court didn’t really find anything corrupt in the transaction.  Pojaman was allowed to keep the land until 2010 when the Civil Court invalidated the deal and told Pojaman to return the land and the FIDF to give her the money back (plus interest).

The other court case that Thaksin has lost is the 5-count ‘policy corruption’ civil case (not criminal) on his assets frozen by the AEC.  The Supreme Court, faced with the problem that policy corruption is nowhere defined in the law, again took off into areas of jurisprudence that had experts and novices alike scratching their heads.  It finally decided to seize all assets Thaksin had acquired while PM and leave the remaining billions frozen.

Now before someone starts a Facebook hate page against me for whitewashing Thaksin’s crimes, let me say clearly that I am appalled as anyone by the failure of the judicial system to prosecute in a fair and open manner his multiple dishonesties.  Which makes me wonder why this whole business has been so crassly mismanaged.

Look at the tangled tale of the Rachada land case above and note how many times the corrupt connections loop back and ensnare all sorts of interesting folk, many of whom today walk free and say interesting things about corruption. 

See, in your simple, mutual back-scratching corruption, there is a briber and a bribee, both of whom profit from the illegality.  You can’t really go after the one without the other.  And if either is someone in a certain protected position at the moment, well, you’re reduced to lesser charges like abuse of authority and courts that routinely overreach the law. 

But the chances of ‘uprooting’ corruption?  I won’t hold my breath.

 


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).

 

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