Is changing Thailand’s culture of corruption possible?

It’s well known that rampant graft is a major drag on Thailand’s economy and the function of its institutions…but how will things ever change if corruption is an accepted part of Thai culture? 

On June 1, 2011, business tycoon Dusit Nontanakorn called on the Thai public to take a stand against the corruption that had crippled the nation for decades.

“It is time for everyone, as the owners of this country, to stand up to protect, take care of and restore Thailand!” Dusit said in a fiery first speech as the chairman of the Private Sector Collective Action Coalition against Corruption (CAC).

CAC, the first organization of its kind in Thailand, was a network of firms focused on promoting anti-graft policies on the national level. The group’s formation was a response to the business community’s frustration with crooked political parties sustaining a vicious cycle of corruption in the country. The organization, now called the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand, is also an example of some of the small roots of change that have begun to emerge in the Kingdom.

Needless to say, corruption is ubiquitous in Thailand. It has wormed its way into almost every part of Thai life. Whether you’re in a delivery room or a crematorium, a bribe is the accepted fast-track fee.

Unfortunately, Dusit’s speech was also his last. Three months later, the outspoken executive and father of two passed away from leukemia at 64.

Although he no longer leads the business community’s fight against corruption, his initiatives are still aggressively being pursued by the organization. Under  new leadership, the CAC was renamed the Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand (ACT) and its membership has expanded from 23 to 47 companies. September 6, the day of Dusit’s death, has been memorialized as Anti-Corruption Day since 2012. 

But despite these well-intentioned efforts, Thailand’s corruption problem shows no sign of abating.

“Over the past three years, the situation has either remained stable or deteriorated,” the incumbent ACT chairman Pramon Sutivong said on this year’s Anti-Corruption Day.

According to a survey conducted by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce (UTCC), Thailand’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) jumped up to 74 percent in June from 63 percent in December 2012.

More bad news came from the Berlin-based corruption data collector, Transparency International, which degraded Thailand’s ranking in its 2012 CPI report eight spots from 80th to 88th out of 176 countries. According to the organization, Thailand has the same level of corruption as some of the poorest developing nations like Suriname, Zambia, Swaziland, Morocco and Malawi. 

Financially speaking, corruption has cost Thailand an incredible THB235-329 billion (USD7.4-10.3 billion) this year or 1.9-2.6 percent of its GDP so far in 2013, according to the UTCC study.

Thanks to surveys like this, Thais have grown more aware and less tolerant of corruption, but they still allow unethical conduct to persist day to day.

Perhaps that’s because corruption patterns change so frequently. Once a pattern is identified, corrupt individuals simply change what they’re doing and adopt more creative patterns to avoid the law. Conspiracies are carried out in more and more sophisticated ways and the police simply can’t keep up.

“The current anti-corruption mechanisms apparently don’t function,” said Deunden Nikomborirak, a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), an institution that conducts regular assessment of the government’s mega projects. According to Deunden, when those faulty mechanisms are combined with lax law enforcement, it creates a vibrant and creative atmosphere for corruption.

That said, Thais are fed up and want things to change.

Over the past few years, anti-graft awareness campaigns have mushroomed nationwide. Certain anti-corruption concepts have been added to the curriculum in a large number of Bangkok schools under the Growing Good project.

At the university level, undergraduates are increasingly getting involved in anti-corruption activities. A recent and distinctly Thai approach was the Miss Queen Anti-Corruption ladyboy pageant at Khon Kaen University.

Yet those initiatives seem like sad satire when you consider that the grown-ups don’t practice what they preach. Since the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), the main body tasked with investigating suspected cases of corruption, in 1999, only four politicians have been found guilty of corruption but all except one has managed to escape prosecution.

The latest case was earlier this week when former deputy Interior Minister Pracha Maleenont was sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison. He was convicted of fraud for a 2004 deal to buy 315 fire trucks and 30 fireboats from an Austrian company Steyr-Daimler-Puch Spezialfahrzeug for nearly THB6.68 billion. As often happens with the rich and powerful, Pracha is rumored to have fled Thailand.

Two other fugitive politicians are former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, convicted of abusing his power to help his spouse enter into contracts with the state, and Vatana Asavahame, who was found guilty of corruption in the Khlong Dan waste water management project scandal. Both were sentenced in 2008.

In 2003, former Public Health Minister Rakkiat Sukthana was handed a 15-year jail term for corruption in a medicine and medical supply purchasing case. Rakkiat escaped but had the gall to stay in the country. One year later he was arrested during an exercise session at a public park in Chonburi.

“It is very important that we put these perpetrators in jail or we fail to set good examples,” Deunden said.

With several government-backed mega projects like the faulty rice-pledging scheme, the THB350 billion water management program and the THB2.2 trillion infrastructure overhaul initiative in the pipeline it’s clear that those examples are needed more than ever.

Without transparency and effective regulation, more money will be stolen and wasted.

“Theoretically, a fight against corruption must start from within the government, but it is impossible in practice,” said ACT secretary-general Vichai Assarasakorn.

It’s well-known that government project contracts are routinely designed for a pre-determined winner. Most recently ACT found that Bangkok Mass Transit Authority’s THB29 billion contract for 3,183 gas-fueled public buses had many flaws that could foster unfair competition. As a result the Authority has taken ACT’s advice and is now revising its draft.

ACT has also questioned Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra authorization of allowing outside observers to monitor state projects. Critics are skeptical about the credibility and independence of those selected by the government to examine its own projects. The move is seen as simply another way for the government to justify its failures and avoid real independent watchdogs.

Vichai has proposed that the government break down each state project to allow independent agencies to get involved just as ACT did with the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority’s contract. 

Peer pressure is also being used to encourage more firms to join the anti-graft alliance. Shareholders like to see that their company has ACT membership and  many clients appreciate working with firms committed to rooting out corruption.

Many say that Thailand will never be able to abolish its infamous culture of  sabai sabai and kreng jai, but it must be attainable. Many developed Asian states such as Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong were once in the same position as Thailand.

“If we all wake up, we will have a new culture, a society that loathes corruption,” said Paiboon Nititawan, a senator and a member of the Committee on Corruption Investigation and Good Governance Promotion.

Paiboon insists that the bottom-up approach and preventive measures are key to changing the culture. Prevention is a much cheaper and a more feasible means than trying to put people behind bars. Paiboon believes education is the key to reducing the problem in the long-term.

Unlike many, Paiboon is also optimistic. In answer to Dusit’s question about when Thais would finally stand up and reject corruption, Paiboon is bullishly predicting a marked change in a decade.

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