Hear it, See it, Speak up! Combating Corruption
If you even vaguely follow Thai politics, you would have heard of the National Anti Corruption Commission (NACC). What with its monumental case a few years back against ex Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s hidden assets, its ponderous pursuit of the ex Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor Juthamas Siriwan’s under the table deal with Hollywood, and most recently, its attempt to wangle the case of the naughty politician who seemed to have kept tens of millions of baht cash in his house only to have had it stolen, from the dogged Chalerm Yoobamrung.
If you have been paying attention to the masses of events which have been happening in Chiang Mai over the past month or so, you may also have noticed the ‘Hear it, See it, Speak up!’ Thai Youth Against Corruption weekend sponsored by USAID and Sapan Foundation at the Chiang Mai University Art Museum organised by Citylife and our friends at the d Foundation. This last minute event would not have been possible without the incredible support of the NACC, specifically, from the staff of the three-month-old NACC Chiang Mai headquarters led by its earnest director Prachuab Sawasdiprasong, who not only invited over 600 high school children to the event, but also one of the nine members of the NACC commission to come from Bangkok to add gravitas and support to the event.
The first official establishment of an anti-corruption policy was in 1975 when the Counter Corruption Act was promulgated and its first taskforce was the Office of the Commission of Counter Corruption, which frankly was pretty ineffective due to its lack of jurisdiction. It wasn’t until the much-lauded 1997 constitution was put in place that the National Anti Corruption Commission along with other bodies such as the Constitutional Court, the Administrative Court, the Office of the Auditor-General, the National Human Rights Commission, the Consumer’s Protection Organisation, the Environmental Conservation Organisation, and an Ombudsman were able to oversee and enforce the checks and balances of state authorities.
As the government slowly decentralises, the NACC will begin to open up regional branches, the first of which is its Chiang Mai office, opened in September of last year. Its temporary headquarters at the 700 Year Stadium complex has a humble staff of 13, though plans are being made to build a larger, dedicated, office, near Huay Tung Tao lake by 2013, which will be able to house up to 50 officers.
“Our job is threefold,” begins Director Prachuab, “It is investigation, prevention and promotion…promotion of knowledge about the harms of corruption, not promoting corruption, of course!” With a very limited budget Director Prachuab and his team follow up on complaints made by the public about state officials and investigate them before handing them further up the command chain. They also spend much of their manpower visiting schools, villages and local authorities to disseminate information on corruption and its harm; building vast networks so that people will understand the dangers of corruption.
“The NACC’s board of directors is not reliant on any judicial or political system,” says Director Prachuab. “The independent board of nine directors is selected according to the constitution and appointed by the senate. The board’s job is to be completely transparent while working within the framework of the law in order to help stem corruption.”
“Each official of the NACC, especially those of higher ranks, are thoroughly vetted and their assets investigated. We are constantly being scrutinised to make sure of our impartiality and lack of any personal interest. There are only 1000 personnel nationwide however, so while our results are satisfactory when seen in light of the manpower, the work can be frustratingly slow. This is because the process of checking transparency has to be completely transparent unto itself, this means that extra steps have to be taken and time consumed.”
For Director Prachuab, the hope lies in the youth. He hasn’t much faith in changing the habits and ways of those numbed by cynicism, but understands the power of relating to the young and using any means possible, new media, fun activities or events such as the recent Hear it, See it, Speak up! to give the youth a voice in expressing their idealism and sentiments towards corruption.
“I have always wondered why beautiful, brainy and sporty kids get scholarships to great schools and universities,” he mulls, “but I have yet to hear of a ‘goodness’ scholarship. Surely honesty, integrity and morals should be given much higher accolades.”
“It gets so frustrating sometimes when some people shrug their shoulders and say that corruption doesn’t affect them so why should they care. The fact is it affects all of us. In the morning when 60 plus millions of Thai people squeeze toothpaste onto a brush, we are paying 7% VAT on that small squeeze; those 60 million small squeezes…every morning. And often it is going to line some politician’s pocket. We are all affected.”
Director Prachuab understands that there is a sense of resignation among many Thais that corruption is so insidious it is unavoidable, thereby integral. “I don’t agree at all. Right now, the Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok is doing a campaign where they are saying no to paying government officials for bids. This is such a powerful and vast group of companies that if they stick to their guns they can succeed. We have also had networks come to us complaining about corruption in various systems. A simple solution we offer sometimes is to take manpower out of a system entirely and digitalise it: an IT solution cuts out all those middle men. If you meet a dishonest government official who demands money simply for doing his job, then you must come here. We have only received about 10 complaints per month so far, and most of them come with no evidence, but we pursue all of them to the best of our abilities. We need the evidence though. Whether it is a tape recording, a photo or written evidence, or simply proof that an official refused to do their job, that is the only way we can help. We have a private interview room and guarantee absolute anonymity. Once we think that a case has merit, we send it to the NACC headquarters in Bangkok where they will investigate further before handing in their verdict. If they are found to be guilty then it is sent to the Office of the Attorney General who will hand the case over to the court. The court, once it has issued a guilty verdict, and in the case where it is a disciplinarily matter, will then send the case to the head of the agency involved – if it is a policeman, it goes to the Royal Thai Police head office, etc. – and they will have to be punished without any further investigation, either by being fired, put on leave or moved to another post. If the case is criminal, then it goes through the court system.”
“The problem is that it is easy to catch the small people, but much harder to catch the big ones,” he adds. “Some politicians are so clever at evading justice that we simply can’t find evidence against them even though we know that they are living way beyond the means provided by their declared assets. Most of them will also use offshore accounts and being career crooks, they have more cunning, technology and manpower than we do. The only way to bring these people down is if people close to them bring us evidence.”
Director Prachuab, while firmly believing in the importance of graft busting, also has karma to fall back on and believes that those crooks out of his reach will be getting theirs at some point anyway.
“But we are working on it,” he promises. “In April 2011, a new law was issued which offers immunity to those who wish to point fingers to someone higher up the chain. This is the first time immunity has been offered and is a great incentive for those with small jail time to avoid it completely by giving us access to up-line criminals. The new law also offers witness protection. Not only that, it allows the court to actually participate in a trial, rather than simply listening to the two sides’ arguments like in the past. Now, if the court is not happy with a witness, it can ask for more information, if is not satisfied that a question has been properly answered, it can launch its very own investigation.”
Director Prachuab admires Singaporean statesman Lee Kwan Yew, whose battle against corruption involved the shaming of the dishonest. “Make them social pariahs, make people hate the corrupt. Use social sanction. I believe very much in this…which brings me back to the youth again, because they and only they have the idealism and power to see this happen.”
When asked about his thoughts regarding Thailand’s recent sinking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index from 78th in 2010 to 80th place in 2011, he sighs. “I feel that Thai people ignore this problem because Thai society is so rich and so full. When you eat and you are full, you don’t care much about anything else, you are complacent. And because we believe in karma, we don’t often feel that sense of urgency to fix things, and I am guilty of relying on karma too!”
Director Prachuab has been with the NACC since its inception in 1997, but has spent his entire career combating corruption, having worked on matters of corruption and ethics since 1985. “I am not disheartened. I don’t think that Thai society is so bad that it depresses me or that we can’t live in it anymore. At the same time I doubt that those who are guilty will ever learn remorse. I believe that Thai people on the whole are good people, but we are slow to change. We only step up when there is a crisis; there is no incentive on a day to day basis. The fact is we all love living in a flexible society but when something huge happens on a large scale, it is only then that society stands out to show its strength.”
Director Prachuab is adamant that the NACC is not susceptible to corruption, insisting that the organisational culture is strict and impartial. Members are frequently investigated and scrutinised. Strict rules are in place about who they can consort with, their bank accounts checked and assets are looked into. Importantly all of the verdicts handed down by the NACC is open to the public. “If you don’t think the NACC made the right judgment, go and point out to us where it deviated from the law,” he challenges.
“Please tell your readers to speak up, come to our Facebook page and leave their opinions, don’t be afraid to come to see us if they see anything untoward, and know that there are many people in this country who want the right thing. We just have to keep working for it.”