Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha speaks to the media after a cabinet meeting in Bangkok on October 18, 2016. Photo: AFP/ DailyNews
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha speaks to the media after a cabinet meeting in Bangkok on October 18, 2016. Photo: AFP/ DailyNews

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha vowed in an address last year marking anti-corruption day that Thailand would be graft-free in the next 20 years under a military master reform plan. A report released on January 25 by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International showed his military regime has a long way to go, with his largely unaccountable authoritarian regime apparently accentuating rather than combating the problem.

TPI’s global ranking, which draws on perceptions of undisclosed business people and country experts on public sector corruption, showed that Thailand slipped from 76th in 2015 to 101st in its 2016 assessment. The report found that government repression, a lack of independent oversight and a deterioration of rights had diminished public faith in the country’s two-and-a-half year old military administration. The ranking put Thailand on a global par with notoriously graft-ridden nations Gabon, Niger, Peru, the Philippines, Timor Leste, Trinidad and Tobago.

The findings are a sharp blow to Prayuth’s military regime, installed in a 2014 takeover coup-makers justified in part on the need to stop alleged rampant corruption in Yingluck Shinawatra’s Peua Thai party-led elected government. His junta has made a strong public show of uprooting past corruption, most visibly in the ongoing trial of Yingluck for alleged malfeasance in her government’s populist rice price support scheme, which state auditors claim cost the country as much as US$15 billion in losses. Yingluck has maintained her innocence; prosecutors are seeking US$1 billion of her personal wealth.

When Thais voted resoundingly to pass a military-backed constitution in a national referendum last August, the democratic result was portrayed by the junta as de facto popular support for the charter’s strong anti-corruption measures. The ‘yes’ vote guaranteed a future overarching role for the armed forces in an appointed Senate, whose members will be empowered to scrutinize and depose elected politicians, their proxies and officials. This month, a military-appointed reform committee recommended imposing the death penalty for officials convicted of corruption involving sums over one billion baht (US$28.4 million).

TPI’s independent report countered that official narrative, saying “Thailand’s new constitution, while it places significant focus on addressing corruption, entrenches military power and unaccountable government, undermining eventual return to democratic civilian rule. Free debate on the constitution was impossible; campaigning in opposition was banned and dozens of people were detained…There is a clear absence of independent oversight and rigorous debate.” Due to royally requested changes to the charter related to the monarchy, elections that were scheduled for late this year will likely be pushed back to mid-2018.

Prayuth, a former army commander, has effectively campaigned on a clean hands ticket to sustain his strongman rule when democracy is eventually restored. He predictably played down TPI’s findings, telling reporters that Thailand’s slipped ranking was based on corruption that occurred before his junta seized power and that only came to light because of his probing anti-graft campaign. Earlier this month, United Kingdom-based airplane engine manufacturer Rolls Royce acknowledged it paid bribes for business to state-owned Thai Airways’ officials from 1991 to 2005. The company also said it paid separate bribes to state energy giant PTT Group.

News also broke this month that US-based General Cable Corporation, a cable and wire maker, stands accused of paying bribes to three Thai state enterprises – Metropolitan Electricity Authority, Provincial Electricity Authority and TOT PCL – by the US Department of Justice. The revelations in both instances came from abroad and so far no individual Thais have been named for soliciting or receiving bribes. It is unclear how Prayuth, whose government relies heavily on state enterprises to implement his economic stimulation policies, will respond.

Former Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra tries a rice dish during an event to promote the consumption of Thai rice to help struggling farmers, in her private garden in Bangkok on November 17, 2016.The ex-premier is currently standing trial for negligence over a rice pledging scheme at the Constitutional Court. / AFP PHOTO / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA
Ex-Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra is on trial for negligence over a rice pledging scheme state auditors claim cost the country as much as US$15 billion in losses. Photo: AFP/ Lillian Suwanrumpha

Prayuth has ostensibly aimed to portray his graft-busting as politically neutral, with culprits fingered on both sides of the country’s color-coded ‘red and yellow’ political divide. While Yingluck’s court case has received the most media attention, Prayuth used his executive power in August to depose Bangkok’s twice elected governor, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, on still unproven corruption allegations. Sukhumbhand, a Democrat Party stalwart of royal lineage, has denied any wrongdoing but has not put up much of a fight against his military ouster. Some analysts viewed his removal as a trial run of how military appointees to the Senate will exercise their scrutiny powers over elected politicians in a military-guided democracy.

Prayuth has ostensibly aimed to portray his graft-busting as politically neutral, with culprits fingered on both sides of the country’s color-coded “red-yellow” political divide.

Many observers were equally surprised by the high court ruling last September that jailed media mogul and yellow shirt protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul for 20 years on corruption charges related to doctoring documents for a bank loan in the 1990s. While the ultra-royalist Sondhi spearheaded the street movement that eventually led to then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s fall in a 2006 military coup, the media mogul is also known to have run afoul of Prayuth’s ruling military clique. Sondhi narrowly survived a 2009 machine gun assassination attempt he later claimed, but never proved, was staged by a royalist military special warfare unit.

Critics argue Prayuth’s anti-corruption drive has bore down on political parties while sparing the armed forces of similar scrutiny. Corruption allegations surrounding military construction of massive statues of past Chakri dynasty kings in a military-administered park made a big media splash in late 2015 but eventually faded after an in-house military review found no grounds for punitive action.

Similar allegations in the media last September claiming that Prayuth’s brother, Ministry of Defense Permanent Secretary General Preecha Chan-ocha, had a role in awarding rich military construction contracts to his soldier son came and went without action. Both Prayuth and Preecha denied any foul play. Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan was also in the spotlight but not sanctioned after reports revealed a chartered flight he and a 38-member entourage took an international defense conference in Hawaii cost the state 20.6 million baht (US$582,000). The previous government’s much smaller delegation flew commercially to the same conference aboard Korean Air.

It is unclear if the year-on-year slippage in Thailand’s TPI corruption perception rating was influenced more by revelations of graft under previous governments or perceptions that the situation has appreciably deteriorated under Prayuth’s heavy-handed rule. The slippage comes at a time of rising and opaque military budgets, a growing role for the armed forces in the state sector and big ticket arms procurements from China and Russia, both notorious for their light reporting requirements and willingness to pay kickbacks.

Significantly, TPI is not alone in its assessment. The Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, a Hong Kong-based outfit, said in a similar corruption perception report published last year that while most of its respondents felt that Prayuth’s government “is less corrupt than the civilian government it overthrew in 2014…there has been too little substance behind the junta’s trumpeting of their war on corruption and determination to call crooks to account. It concluded: “the only [national institution] avoiding forensic investigation is the military.”