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Fighting corruption from the bottom: The case of Thailand

Charas Suwanmala, Professor & Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok

The intention of this paper is to make some observations on civic movements in Thailand that are combating corruption. These include organizations in the mass media; social, religious and community organizations; labour unions; occupational solidarity groups; community organizations, and networks of international organizations. Most have multi-purpose missions, and anti-corruption is one goal among others. 

Where corruption takes place

Corruption is a common phenomenon in Thai society. It can be wherever state-related transactions take place. The following are typical areas of corruption in Thailand:

1. Public policy process: so-called “policy corruption?and “political rent-seeking?
2. Revenue administration: including corruption in taxation, fines, fees and charges, public loans, financing investment projects, asset management, etc.
3. Expenditure administration: ranging from budget planning and allocation, procurement, concession, market intervention, disbursements, to public-private partnership management.
4. Personnel management: the notion of “position buying? ranging from recruitment and promotion, to transfer and rotation.
5. Political transactions: including asset declaration, election vote buying, parliamentary vote buying, party buying, and buying of members of parliament.
6. The justice process: from corruption among police in law enforcement and judicial corruption, to bribery in jails.
7. Public service delivery: including healthcare, education, land registration, natural resource management, pollution control, energy management, food and drug safety, environmental protection, and consumer protection, among others.  Different types of corruption can be found in these areas, such as corruption in giving certifications, licenses, and permits; corruption in natural resource concessions and privatization; corruption in pricing and regulating public utilities, energy, etc.

2005 survey on businessmen's perceptions of corruption during the past five years

Corruption Types Increasing No change Decreasing
Initiation of projects for personal benefit  19.3 19.3 17.5
Collusive bidding 8.8 15.8 24.6
Arrangement of contracts with loopholes or with wide discretion 7.0 31.6 17.5
Bias or locked specifications 12.3 28.1 15.8
Locating of public infrastructure to maximize personal benefit 1.8 22.8 24.6
Use of inside information for land speculation 14.0 12.3 22.8
Extraordinarily high standard prices   7.0 21.1 35.1
Nontransparent bidding processes  3.5 35.1 26.3
Changing of construction details to help vendors get away with tax evasion  7.0 28.1 33.3
Extortion in certification of materials, goods and services 8.8 28.1 33.3
Selective certification of materials, goods, and services to benefit vendors 0.0 26.8 25.0

(Adapted from Sauwanee Thairungroj, “Corruption Situation in Thailand? a paper for the conference on evidence-based anti-corruption policy, organized by Thailand’s National Counter Corruption Commission in collaboration with the World Bank, 5-6 June 2009, table 15, pages 32-33; in Thai)

Fighting corruption from the bottom

The majority of civic organizations choose a proactive approach in fighting the corruption, such as through civic education, monitoring, and information dissemination. Only some of them take aggressive roles as corruption watchdogs, revealing incidents, and pushing state institutions to take action against corruption.

Corruption watchdog organizations in Thailand have different settings. Labour unions in state enterprises, medical doctors?solidarity in the Ministry of Public Health, and organizations representing teachers and lecturers in public schools, colleges and universities are examples of corruption watchdogs in public organizations. Likewise, community organizations, religious groups, local radio stations and newspapers are active watchdogs against corruption in their communities. At the national level, there are the press, television, foundations, and some not-for-profit institutions.

As a watchdog, a civic organization can do a good job when corruption is visible, as it can bark loud enough that someone in charge can hear and take action in response. But in many cases civic organizations have to overcome a number of barriers to get close to incidents of corruption. They might have difficulty to find media personnel willing to publicize the case. And even if they can find good media people to help make the scandal known to the public, there is little chance that state institutions will investigate.

Civic organizations in Thailand are often seen as anti-state or anti-organization power players. They must take extraordinary efforts to fight corruption. At the same time both state agents and criminals threaten them. Nevertheless, there are some partly successful cases, including the four illustrated below.

1. Mosquito eradication chemical project

The corruption took place during the legislative budget appropriation in 1992. Some parliamentarians were bribed by a chemical company to put a pet project, on a mosquito eradication chemical, into the 1993 annual budget appropriation. The budget amount of 143,133,800 baht was allocated but was intentionally misplaced under the Department of Community Development, Ministry of Interior, rather than the Ministry of Public Health.

The press uncovered the unusual budget allocation, as well as the bribery. The budget execution was later disrupted and investigated by an order of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who came into power after the incident had occurred.

The director of the Department of Community Development contended that his department did not initiate the budget proposal for mosquito eradication, as it was not the department’s mission. Nevertheless, he did not reject the budget allocation for mosquito eradication because he didn’t want to meddle with political demands.

Having learned that the budget had been misplaced for political reasons, the director and officials of the Bureau of Budget neither interfered nor revoked the budget allocation while they were in charge of correcting budget allocations among departments and ministries.

Members of parliament leaked the scandal to the press, which brought it to public attention. The reporter who uncovered the case was afterward awarded best news reporter of the year 1997.

No politicians or public officials were found guilty or punished as a result of an administrative investigation. Similar corrupt dealings in legislative budget appropriation have accelerated up until now and have likely become common practice.

2. Klong Daan sewage treament

The Klong Daan sewage treatment case incorporates a number of corrupt practices, including illegal land registrations, illegal bidding and construction of a waste treatment factory, and non-performing officials.

The Klong Daan sewage treatment project was adopted in 1995, under Prime Minister Chatchai Chunawan’s government. It was expected to be the largest sewage treatment utility in Southeast Asia, with a total budget of 23,700 million baht. The project was located in Klong Daan Sub-district, Samudprakarn Province.

Corruption took place even before the project started up. Wattana Assawahaem, the most influential politician in Samudprakan and deputy interior minister at the time, used inside information to buy 17 parcels of land, totaling 1900 rai (760 acres), from local people in areas where the project would be located. He paid 563 million baht for the land and sold it to the project owner, the Department of Pollution Control, for 1900 million baht.

Klong Daan people, led by two community leaders, Chalao Timtong and Dawan Chantornhassadee, organized and moved against the project as it could have severe impacts on community life, as well in protest at the non-transparent method of land acquisition.  The community leaders did an in-depth study of the land registration and acquisition process, which revealed that a number of plots of public land were illegally registered as private property and subsequently sold for the project. They presented the case to the National Counter Corruption Commission, where a formal investigation started and was passed to the attorney general in 2007, sixteen years after the case’s inception.

The media came in as a partner of the community organizations.  Jermsak Pintong, a TV producer and director, helped organize a forum for Klong Daan local people and revealed the case through his television series. The case was brought to the Senate through community leaders and a group of senators, including Jermsak, who had been subsequently elected. The Senate also proposed that the NCCC act on the case.

In 2009 the Supreme Court sentenced Wattana to ten years?imprisonment, but he escaped to a neighbouring country prior to the date of the sentence. Other aspects of the case are still in the investigation process. Yingphan Manasikarn, science and technology minister, and his deputy Suwat Linpataphanlob, were also accused of being involved in this incident.

Government officials in the Department of Pollution Control throughout took a passive role in fighting the corruption in this case, yielding to demands of politicians. Only once the NCCC investigation had progressed and significant incidents had been uncovered did the responsible officials decide to assume active roles.

3. Medicine and medical equipment purchasing

The Ministry of Public Health encountered two major corruption scandals during the past twelve years. The first one, known as the medicine and medical supply corruption case, emerged in 1998. Rural Doctor Solidarity, a watchdog group of doctors who work in remote rural hospitals, first exposed the scam. They alleged that the purchasing prices of medicines and medical supplies in 34 provinces were so unusually high that there must be some corruption in the purchasing process. Rakkiat Suksthana, the public health deputy minister at the time, was suspected of involvement. The media and press brought the scandal to public attention in a short time. The parliament, police, and then the NCCC investigated.

The police alleged that Rakkiat had ordered or induced his subordinates to purchase medicines and medical supplies from two colluding firms with a corrupt intention. A sum of 33,400,000 baht appeared in the bank accounts of his wife. In August 1998, just before leaving the post, Rakkiat obtained a cashier’s cheque for five million baht from the managing director of a colluding firm. Chirayu Charatsathien, his secretary—who was also convicted and imprisoned—testified that the cheque was payment for the minister’s lifting of the ceiling price and purchasing from the colluding firms.

On 24 October 2002, the NCCC ruled that Rakkiat was “unusually wealthy?and the attorney general petitioned to seize his property, including 233 million baht in bank deposits. 

The second scandal over the acquisition of medical equipment and capital is known as the corruption in the Thailand Strengthening Plan scam. It began in 2009 during the economic crisis and is still unfolding.  The cabinet, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, introduced the Thailand Strengthening Plan for macro-economic stimulation. The plan was implemented with limited preparation, as an out-of-budget scheme. The Ministry of Public Health obtained 86,684.61 million baht, or about six per cent of the total Thailand Strengthening Plan funds. Part was dedicated for medical equipment and capital acquisitions for public hospitals in remote areas.

Rural Doctor Solidarity again uncovered the corruption. Leaders of the group indicated that the fund allocation and procurement process was unusual and nontransparent. In addition, specifications of medical equipment as well as their marked prices were excessively high and did not correspond with the demands of many hospitals, which indicated corruption. The media then came in and publicized the scandal.

In response, the cabinet established an independent investigation taskforce to uncover the incident. In late December 2009, the taskforce reported to cabinet, confirming that the marked prices of medical equipment and capital items were unusually high.  In addition, there were concentrations of fund allocations in some provinces and hospitals, especially in large hospitals in cities, rather than small rural hospitals, which did not correspond with the stated policy. The taskforce noted that government officials in general were neither attentive nor proactive in addressing the corruption, perceiving it to be a common phenomenon.

In response to the scandal the public health minister, Withaya Kaoparadai, resigned in late December 2009.

Corruption scandals under the Thailand Strengthening Plan were reportedly pervasive in other ministries too, including in the Ministry of Transportation, Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, Ministry of Education, and Ministry of Interior, but none of them were formally investigated, as no watchdogs stirred up these cases. It is possible that the legislature will bring up these cases for investigation.

4. Highway bribery

Highway bribery has long been a common type of street-level corruption across Thailand. Trucks, taxis and other local public transportation vehicles often pay bribes to police in exchange for getting away with illegal practices such as speeding, overloading, drink driving, and driving without a licence. Highway and traffic police distribute the money among their companions and pass them on to their supervisors. In return, they are protected and promoted.

In 2003 the iTV television channel made highway bribery visible to the public for the first time by broadcasting a series on it. In response, the Royal Thai Police adopted an investigation taskforce into the reported cases. Only a few street-level officials were reported as having been involved. Following iTV, many other cases of highway bribery have been shown on television, broadcast on community radio, and told among local truck and transportation associations.

Unfortunately, a street-level policeman named Chit Tongchit, a lieutenant in Petchaburi Province who had dedicated more than a decade of his life to fighting highway corruption and other illegalities, was assassinated by a group of fellow police on 15 January 2009. Apart from Chit, a number of counter-corruption civic movement leaders in Thailand have been assassinated in recent years, including Churin Rajapol, Narin Podang, Pitak Tonawood, Suwat Wongpyasatit, Chaweewan Puksoongnern, and Charoern Wataksorn. State power had been involved in all of these killings.

Strengthening evidence-based watchdogs

As corruption is so prevalent, Thailand needs to strengthen both state institutions in charge of crushing corruption from the top as well as to multiply and strengthen civic corruption watchdogs that can chase and catch corruption from the bottom. It is necessary that the NCCC, parliament and civic organization watchdogs develop collective networking organizations in which all parties can multiply their capabilities in data collection, information exchange and case analysis, plotting, and mapping. The network should extend to the media, community radio, TV channels, the press, as well as labour unions, occupational associations or solidarity groups in public and private organizations, and university and college students. Thailand should aim at having enough civic corruption watchdogs that can effectively monitor corruption based on empirical evidence and nonpartisan methods in the near future.



Thai-language references

Constitutional Court. 30 May 2007, decision p. 2 3-5/2550.

Nualnoi Treerat, et al. 2003. Civic participation in monitoring Tambon Administrative Organizations, Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

Pasuk Pongpaichit, et al. 1998. Corruption in Thai bureaucracy. National Counter Corruption Commission, Bangkok.

Pasuk Pongpaichit, et al. 2003. Business, state, and corruption. National Counter Corruption Commission, Bangkok.

Rosana Tositrakul, et al. 2005. The brave men against corruption: Five case studies; a study on impacts and violence against civic monitoring of corruption, Papyrus Publication, Bangkok.

Supachai Yawaprapas, et al. 2001. Bureaucrats-perspectives on corruption and position buying. Office of the Civil Service Commission, Bangkok.


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