BANGKOK, Thailand — Thailand remains a country where cash can make traffic cops, city inspectors and even high-ranking politicians look the other way.
But next year, the country is expected to roll out one of its most aggressive anti-corruption efforts yet.
Called the Public Anti-Corruption Commission or PACC, it will station as many as 2,000 government-paid watchdogs throughout the kingdom to field corruption allegations. The commission, awaiting parliament’s approval, is aimed at the petty bribes that continue to stain Thailand’s reputation despite a volley of anti-corruption measures.
“The [anti-corruption commission] is really the best bet to deal with lowest levels of police corruption,” said Philip Guentert, a U.S. federal prosecutor detailed to the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. Having built corruption cases against Chicago politicians, including former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, he now advises anti-graft cases in Asia.
“I’ve actually been working with them on training investigators on how to put together a corruption case,” said Guentert. “They have lots of good intentions, lots of people that are eager to go.”
Guentert and the commission have their work cut out for them.
Corruption — and anti-corruption crusades — have long destabilized Thailand. The last two military coups, in 1991 and 2006, were staged in the name of scuttling fraudulent politicians. Last year, a political movement amassed huge mobs to seize the premier’s compound and Bangkok’s chief airport, all under the banner of cleaning up political corruption.
Even now, corruption persists despite laws that can shut down an entire political party for buying votes. On the eve of elections, alcohol sales are often banned to dry out potential voters and discourage politicians from staging boozy block parties to sway votes.
But the backlash has yet to clean up Thailand’s reputation. On a 10-point scale, with zero being the most corrupt, the leading corruption perceptions survey gives Thailand a 3.5.
This 2009 ranking by Transparency International places Thailand just below China and just above India.
Still, some argue that it's not that bad. “It’s very easy to draw a snap judgment that Thailand is in a bad state as far as corruption is concerned,” said David Tuck, a Bangkok-based analyst with Spectrum OSO Asia, a private security and risk management service. “In terms of big-ticket corruption there’s no way that someplace like Taiwan is that order of magnitude less corrupt than someplace like Thailand,” he adds. Outside of Singapore, Thailand’s Southeast Asian neighbors are rated as significantly more corrupt.
Because of corruption’s inherent sneakiness, analysts are forced to simply measure its public perception. Everyday bribe requests from street cops or low-level officials, Tuck said, do the most to wreck that perception. Cleaning up the pettiest and most visible bribery, he said, will do the most to reverse Thailand’s bad image.
Such is the intent of the new Public Anti-Corruption Commission, which will likely debut with eight field offices strategically placed around the country.
Presently, all corruption complaints are filtered through the Bangkok-based National Counter Corruption Commission, which has existed in various forms for a decade.
Minor accusations, particularly those from distant provinces, often fall through the cracks, said Medhi Krongkaew, one of nine commissioners responsible for judging corruption claims.
“When I took office three years ago, there were cases waiting for us, more than 10,000 cases,” Medhi said. “Incredible if you can do that in your lifetime.”
The public corruption agency, Medhi said, would siphon off those low-level allegations and leave larger cases — such as massive graft in procurement projects — to the head office. “The actual organization of it, we have to work out the detail and we’re now doing it.”
At this point, about 65 percent of Thais regard the government’s efforts against corruption as “ineffective,” according to a Transparency International poll. Still, about 28 percent said the efforts are “effective” with 6 percent regarding them as “neither."
Even the National Counter Corruption Commission has been stained by impropriety, with several commissioners booted for hiking their own salaries in 2004. Supporters of ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra also derided commissioners as they considered his former party’s graft allegations in 2007.
“Almost every week, people came in front of our office,” Medhi said. “Burning our effigies. Cursing us.”
The Public Anti-Corruption Commission is meant to research more citizens’ allegations and extend investigators’ reach into provinces where federal oversight is dim. The majority of existing complaints, Medhi said, have been lodged against police officers.
But even if the Public Anti-Corruption Commission manages to expose a vast number of new corruption cases, the Chicago corruption fighter Guentert said, the “institutional means to deal with it is probably somewhere down the road. But it’s in the works and I think that’s a good sign.”
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