Uprooting the graft that has long been second nature to Thais in positions of authority will be a daunting endeavour, but we can take heart in signs that the effort is at least underway.
At the moment there is a temporary exhibition of sculptures called “The Museum of Thai Corruption” at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Each of its 10 pieces symbolises a major case in our recent history. Organised by the Anti-Corruption Organisation of Thailand (ACT), it’s on view through Sunday, September 27.
Mana Nimitmongkol of the ACT points out that generations upon generations of Thais have lived under the thumb of graft and we’ve simply become used to it. Apathy prevails. His group has other ideas. “We want to tell the cheaters that what they do is evil. Their behaviour will be recorded by history and the people will never forget nor forgive them.”
A grim reminder in palpable form of how woeful the situation is, the exhibition in some ways is more effective than current statistics, as disturbing as they are too.
Thailand was ranked 85th among 175 countries surveyed in the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, the latest numbers available. The survey was conducted by Transparency International, a non-governmental organisation that monitors and publicises corporate and political graft. Somehow being midway down the list offered reason for optimism: Thailand had been in 102nd place a year earlier.
Now we have an annual National Anti-Corruption Day too, and, in his speech marking that occasion on September 6, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said his government has made much progress in tackling the problem. But he also called for more cooperation between government agencies and the business community, civic organisations and the general public to fight what he called a “social cancer”.
The government has declared war on corruption and made it a national priority – a good start, to be sure. Now we need to see action backing up the rhetoric.
To win this war, the authorities involved must first and foremost enforce existing laws so that corrupt officials are punished regardless of their political affiliation or social status.
When the Corruption Perceptions Index rankings were announced in December, our Anti-Corruption Commission was satisfied enough with Thailand’s improvement that it voiced confidence in the country’s ability to reach 50th place on the list by 2017.
It will take an enormous communal effort to achieve that. For now we can only dream of entering the top 20 and, even as we gaze aloft, warnings trickle down from the summit.
New Zealand – assessed as the world’s least-corrupt nation for several consecutive years – last year tumbled into second place. A group of accountants there recently warned that financial graft is on the rise (as it is around the globe) and poses a serious threat to the country. If a land that’s never been outside the top five on the corruption index is having a problem, Thailand appears to be swimming against a ferocious current.
Certainly, an entirely corruption-free society might not even be possible. But there are all sorts of benefits to be gained by minimising the appalling practice.
Every citizen can help improve Thailand’s ranking by refusing to participate in any behaviour that encourages corruption. As Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said recently, without genuine public awareness, the fight against corruption will never succeed. “There are still brazen-faced people – it’s not just officials,” he said, sharing the blame around. “If the private sector doesn’t offer bribes, officials will have no bribes to accept.”
Tea money and other forms of under-the-table payments – so long an accepted part of life in Thailand – will have to go. From the viewpoint today it looks like a mountain to climb. We should get started right away, one step at a time.