Interview with Dr. Sirilaksana Khoman, Senior Advisor, National Anti- Corruption Commission of Thailand
Despite improvements in the past years corruption remains a serious problem in Thailand reflected in the recently promulgated amendment to the Organic Act on Anti-Corruption (Organic Law on Anti-Corruption (No. 3) 2015, see the comments on this act below) as well as the recent decision of the Constitutional Drafting Committee to include in the new Charter a provision on a lifetime ban for politicians to be found corrupt. In the interview below Dr. Sirilaksana Khoman, Chair, Economic Sector Corruption Prevention, National Anti-Corruption Commission of Thailand, informs about the current situation of corruption in Thailand and possible levers and strategies to combat corruption in Thailand.
Q: How would you describe the present situation regarding corruption in Thailand? What are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed urgently? In which sector is corruption most virulent?
First of all, let me stress that what I am going to say is my personal opinion and not necessarily the view of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). I think regarding the present situation in Thailand, indicators that people are looking at, such as the Corruption Perception Index, show that there is a serious problem in Thailand. Our own survey of companies regarding bribery also shows that companies say they pay bribes up to 30%. And although the most recent survey indicates that the incidence of bribery has gone down somewhat, corruption remains a serious problem in Thailand.
What are the most pressing issues? Basically, there are three components of the anti-corruption fight: suppression, prevention and promotion. With regards to suppression the most demanding challenge we are facing is that we need to do more speedy investigation. We have to conclude cases in a timely manner, so that people who are committing the crime of corruption would be deterred because they know that the punishment would be meted out to them. That would show others that there are speedy consequences for being corrupt.
As for prevention, inception of projects with wide stakeholder engagement is the most pressing issue, together with the legal framework to allow greater participation. We need to mobilize civil society to engage in the anti-corruption fight, and there I see promising developments. The new procurement law that is currently being scrutinized by the Council of State has a provision for integrity pacts and independent observers of government projects. We also need to break down the oligopolistic and monopolistic elements in society and in markets. On the promotion side, we need to more vigorously promote ethical values, which is not necessarily the role of the NACC.
To answer the question about in which sector is corruption most virulent, it is more useful to look at the types of corruption rather than sectors. Corruption ranges from petty extortion to high-level complex capture of state budgets. Petty extortion or petty bribery has gone down in Thailand because of the reform in public administration. But I think the most important area that is most difficult to tackle involves projects that are approved by the cabinet. In times of emergencies, natural disasters, floods and tsunamis, etc., you need the cabinet to be able to move quickly and spend money for emergency and disaster relief. And so we have that provision in our public finance. But it seems that there are no checks and balances in the system. The cabinet can approve unlimited funds and there is no consolidated accounting of the funds used. Each ministry or agency is responsible for a small segment of the project. And so they have their own accounts, but there is no consolidated account of the whole project. Take for example the rice scheme. Five hundred billion Baht was approved by the cabinet. But when you ask how the money was spent, the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives as an account on how much was paid to farmers, but not how much of the rice was sold, as that comes under the responsibility of the Ministry of Commerce in charge of warehousing and storing as well as disposal. There is no consolidated account of the whole scheme. Different agencies have different accounts and there is no consolidated account and no transparency on how the funds were used and dispersed. So I think, that is a very important area that needs reform. There have been proposals for some kind of parliamentary budget office. That may be an answer. But it involves setting up a new agency and depends on whether it would have the motivation and power to scrutinize the budget – the power of the purse. Traditionally in Western democracies, the parliament would scrutinize the government. But in Thailand this tradition was never built up. Once the government is formed and Prime Minister more or less nominated, the parliament doesn’t rigorously question how the money is spent. So people have been proposing a parliamentary budget office. Alternatively, in my opinion, we might think about converting the Budget Bureau into an autonomous institution. At the moment the Budget Bureau comes under the Ministry of Finance and the Minister of Finance is their boss. The Minister of Finance is part of the ruling government, and so the Budget Bureau has limited ability or motivation to question the budget because the officers of the Bureau can be transferred or intimidated.
Q: What are the actual strategies and measures in the fight against corruption and how are they implemented? What are the challenges and obstacles?
In my own opinion, if we can place more emphasis on prevention, it would be much more efficient than waiting for corruption to occur and then doing the investigation which is very time consuming and very difficult. The problem that we have right now is that there are so many cases that are backlogged. We still need to spend time on the investigation of the cases. That is a major constraint for shifting resources towards prevention. Because we cannot shift resources yet, I think it is really important to engage civil society and every stakeholder in society to come and be a partner on the prevention side.
Another major challenge in strengthening the prevention of corruption in Thailand is that social sanctions in Thai society are not strong if we can compare with societies like those in Korea and Japan. In these countries even just a small “scandal” of wrongdoing might result in resignations and sometimes suicide. Nothing needs to be proven. But in Thailand that doesn’t happen. People don’t resign from their positions as a rule. There has only been one case of someone resigning that is Khun Apirak Kosayodhin, the former Governor of Bangkok, when he was indicted on charges of corruption. He resigned so that the investigation could go ahead. To my knowledge that is the only case when someone voluntarily resigned. In Germany ministers who were accused and proven to have plagiarized their PhD theses resigned. There is no law that says that he or she has to resign, so no legal procedures are needed. But this kind of sense of civic responsibility has to be built up over decades. I am sure that these people don’t really want to resign, but it is the social pressure that makes them resign. This kind of social sanction is still not strong in Thailand. We have to rely on legal sanctions and so we get bogged down in legal wrangling.
In this regard we really need education and ethics as a long-term strategy to fight corruption in Thailand. However, education needs to be children- centered. At the moment we are preaching to them that, for example, stealing is wrong, and they know that it is wrong, in the abstract sense. It needs to be more personal. For example we could ask children: if you want a nice smart phone and your parents cannot afford it, but your father perhaps is in a position where he can extract bribes, would you feel that it is alright for your father to get these bribes in order to buy you a smart phone. Children need to be involved in discussions on something that is very relevant to them. I know this is a cliché but we need to build that up as a long-term strategy.
As a medium-term strategy for an effective prevention of corruption I think we need to achieve better project monitoring and better asset recovery. In project monitoring, a major challenge to tackle is identifying independent experts to monitor projects. Take the example of the Suvarnabhumi Airport Phase II project. It is very difficult to find independent experts that are not already involved in the project. International cooperation could be explored here, involving cooperation for example from the ASEAN member states. Asset recovery from foreign jurisdictions is also important, so that criminals who flee abroad will not be able to enjoy their ill-gotten gains.
Q: Have there been changes in the anti-corruption polices under the current government?
The current government has promulgated many new laws that expedite government service and transparency. There are three laws that have already been enacted and another 9 laws that are under consideration.
Q: Which role does corruption play in the view of electoral politics in Thailand?
Democracy is the least flawed system of government. But to have a full fledged democracy we also have to have checks and balances. I think the areas where anti-corruption plays a role related to electoral politics are election promises and budgetary transparency. Politicians have the right and freedom to make electoral promises and to undertake whatever polices they consider suitable. But what I would like to see some reforms in this area. When politicians make promises during the election campaigns and offer projects they are going to implement after coming to power, I would like to see a law requiring them to display how much those projects will cost and where the money is coming from. There are only a few avenues and sources from which the money can come. First, from taxation. If you are going to increase taxes, then which taxes and by how much should be disclosed. Make that clear, explicit and transparent. If you don’t increase taxes then you have to cut some other programs and projects. Which ones? Make it transparent and let the people know which programs are going to be involved, whether it is school funding, healthcare or whatever. If you don’t increase taxes, or cut programs, then you have to borrow. Make clear the lending source, either domestic, international or whatever. So I think that, if the law requires politicians to do that, then the people can make informed judgments and vote accordingly.
Q: Which role does corruption play from the perspective of the economy and especially from the perspectives of the foreign companies?
In terms of the economy I think having a corruption free society is really important for sustainable growth and development. Some people would say that a little bit of corruption is good because it greases the wheel, it moves things along. But that is not the sustainable situation. It’s like a short-run fix. If ‘greasing of the wheel’ is needed, why not concentrate on where the wheel is stuck, and fix that? In terms of the values in society, you don’t want to teach your children it’s alright to bribe those people in order to get the project. If children grow up thinking like that, what kind of society would you have? There are bound to be elements in society that would oppose that. So it would fuel conflict in society and that is not good for the economy either. So it is not sustainable if you have a society or an economy in which corruption is pervasive.
In terms of foreign companies, Thailand has now included foreign officials as targets of possible prosecutions and investigations in the recent amendment of the Organic Act on Anti-Corruption. Previously we exempted foreign officials from being investigated. Foreign companies often complain privately about having to pay bribes to government officials, they are reluctant to report it and don’t want to get involved. Without evidence it is not possible to proceed on hearsay, so we need cooperation from everyone, from all the stakeholders, including the foreign companies.
One question that we need to work out with respect to the amendment is the question of personal liability and whether the management personally has to be responsible for not overseeing the conduct of their employees. I think the foreign companies are very nervous. I had a phone call with the American Security Exchange Commission. I was asked about the death penalty, and whether the foreign companies – if caught in a bribery case with a Thai official – would be subjected to the death penalty? I had to inform them that for long time, no one has been sentenced to death in Thailand, and no one has ever been sentenced to death for corruption or bribery. According to the prosecutors the death penalty is supposed to induce people to confess, because once they confess the penalty is usually reduced by half. So, if there is a death penalty, then the punishment is life imprisonment. If the maximum is life imprisonment and if they confess, the sentence is usually 25 years. And for good behavior there is a possibility that they could be out in five years or even less.
Thank you very much for the interview, Dr. Sirilaksana.
The interview was conducted by Shavaorn Wongcom (left), CPG program officer. Pictures by Maria Achrait