Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Striking Where It Hurts A THAI CRUSADE FOR CLEAN POLITICS

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Striking Where It Hurts A THAI CRUSADE FOR CLEAN POLITICS

Article excerpt

New watchdogs now have the teeth to fight corruption but old-style politics aren't going to disappear overnight. Some say this will take no less than a revolution in political culture

Not a day goes by in Thailand without some new tale of corruption being aired in the press. Some see, a revolution underway while others question the use of attacking such a long-accepted disease. So what chances do the anti-corruption crusaders have?

If events this year are anything to go by, they might well be gaining the upper hand. The first senatorial elections by popular vote held in March turned into a veritable soap opera with the newly established Election Commission ordering more than half the races to be run again because of irregularities or vote-buying. In the end, it took five rounds of voting to fill all the seats.

Later in the month, Sanan Kachornprasart, the all-powerful interior minister and secretary-general of the ruling Democrat Party, was forced to resign after the National Counter-Corruption Commission (NCCC) accused him of falsifying documents concerning a $1.2 million loan. Another key event was the rioting in the southern province of Nakhon Si Thammarat set off in early September by police corruption.

The crash that killed tolerance for bribes

The list of scandals gets longer each day in a country where corruption drains away 10 to 20 percent of the national budget--about 2.25 to 4.5 billion dollars.

"There's clearly a knock-on effect," says Pasuk Phongpaichit, an economics professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and author of several books on corruption. According to the drafters of the NCCC programme, "there is broad consensus in favour of a national crusade against corruption aimed at reforming the whole society." A recent poll showed that Thais saw government corruption as the country's third most serious problem, behind the economic crisis and the rising cost of living, and just ahead of drugs.

This great urge for change is the culmination of a long process that began in the late 1970s when the army agreed to a power-sharing deal. Since then, Thailand has seen civil society grow and become a player on the political scene, notably by taking a strong stand against an attempted military coup in May 1992. What was tolerated 30 years ago is no longer acceptable.

Several political leaders have stood out in this period of transformation. In November 1985, Chamlong Srimuang, an austere former army commander, became the most popular mayor Bangkok has ever had. A few years later, police lieutenant Prathin Santiprapop, known as "Mr Clean," ran an efficient operation to stamp out a profitable nationwide timber-smuggling scheme.

Then, in 1997, came two events that hastened the course of Thai history: the Asian financial crash and the enactment of a new constitution. "People tolerated the waste of money in bribes when things were going well, but much less at a time of economic crisis," says Phongpaichit. …

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