One of the claims used by Thai military leaders to justify their coup in 2014 was that the administration of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was corrupt. Back then, corruption charges were seen as a useful weapon to be deployed against pro-Shinawatra political figures, as a pretext to drive them into exile or imprison them; the effect was to silence the still-influential Shinawatra clan and intimidate its remaining supporters, including politicians who opposed the military’s second intervention in Thai politics in eight years.
However, there are high risks of corruption in most sectors in Thailand, and this has left the military government that now runs Thailand, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), with a dilemma in the years since the 2014 coup: to fight corruption, which risks exposing powerful figures in the Thai establishment and state security services (and whose support is needed to bolster the control exercised by the “temporary” military government), or to ignore it, which risks damaging the junta’s fragile legitimacy and sparking the kind of widespread public unrest which could ultimately drive it from power and expose its members to prosecution.
In the years immediately after the 2014 coup, corruption in Thailand was widely held to have worsened under the NCPO, in part because the Thai courts lost their constitutional independence following the coup and became politicized. Moreover the security services are themselves widely held to be among the most corrupt parts of the Thai state, thanks in part to their entrenched patronage systems and their entanglement in national politics, and yet these same institutions are now ultimately in charge of the Thai judiciary and its fight against corruption.
Not surprisingly, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) paints a very mixed picture of the generals’ efforts since 2014 to fight against corruption. Using a system where the higher the score, the cleaner the country, Thailand scored 37 out of 100 in 2012, 35 out of 100 in 2013 and 38 out of 100 in 2014, the year Yingluck Shinawatra’s civilian government was overthrown. After the NCPO began running things, Thailand scored 38/100 in 2015, falling to 35/100 in 2016, before improving back to 37/100 in 2017, the latest year for which figures are available. According to the Nikkei Asian Review, the Bangkok business community widely believes that corruption was worse under Yingluck, but comparing the CPI scores for her time in office with the junta’s suggests that for ordinary Thais nothing much seems to have changed. Of course this is also an indictment of Thailand’s flawed democracy, which failed to reform itself while it had the chance and thus left the door open to a group of strongmen who could promise to curb entrenched corrupt practices with authoritarian firmness.
It was no accident that the NCPO’s focus on corruption in the aftermath of its coup struck a chord with Thais and foreign investors at the time. The Nikkei Asian Review detailed in a 2017 story how the incoming military government, led then as now by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, swiftly doubled the budget of Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission. Prayut also moved to place all 55 of Thailand’s notoriously inefficient and opaque state enterprises under one board supervised by himself, reducing the abilities of the various ministries to oversee them. In the past it was common practice for an incoming minister to stack the boards of state companies with his or her personal cronies and use them to plunder the businesses. Unsurprisingly such a system created a steadily stream of scandals whenever democratically elected civilian governments were in power, helping to undermine the moral authority of the governing system that kept producing them.
With their own fragile legitimacy, the ruling NCPO and Prayut also have reasons to reduce corruption (in the civilian world at least) for economic reasons. As part of its development strategy, the junta is trying to lure in more foreign investors to its ambitious Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) development program. A multibillion dollar scheme to move middle-income Thailand up the value chain by breaking into production in technologically advanced areas like electric vehicles, robotics, and the field of biochemistry, the EEC is intended to rejuvenate Thailand’s industrial heartland on its eastern seaboard, and show that the military can manage the economy as well as any elected politician. After decades of growth, that area is now suffering from the effects of being undercut by lower cost regional rivals, including China.
The EEC is meant to help change all this but to do that it will need billions in foreign investment, a challenge for a middle-sized country with Thailand’s international business reputation and no unique selling point such as oil or a large working age population. Thailand’s slight rise up the ranks compared with other states in the latest Transparency International CPI report (it was ranked 96th in the world in 2017, compared with 101st place in 2016) will therefore be welcomed by the NCPO. But given that Thailand’s CPI score in 2012 was 37, the same as its score in 2017, the improvements in its international ranking relative to other states are largely due to other countries backsliding, rather than any success from the NCPO’s efforts to improve the situation at home.
Indeed the junta was left reeling earlier this year from its very own corruption scandal, when Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Prawit Wongsuwan became embroiled in a row over the number of luxury watches he seemed to own, something difficult to reconcile with his official salary. Prawit was one of the senior officials who helped organize and carry out the 2014 coup, and is considered a serious powerbroker on Thailand’s political scene; sacking him would be difficult for Prayut, whose future political ambitions might be on the line. However, clumsy attempts to manage the fallout have helped prolong the story. The scandal has also helped to cement the idea that the NCPO in its current form is winding down, despite the repeated postponements by the junta of the date for holding new national elections.
The expectation is that Prayut will try to manufacture some fresh way of staying on in power, perhaps as an unelected prime minister as allowed under the military-backed constitution approved in a referendum in 2016. Members of the current military government might support this ambition if they think it will give them political cover from prosecution once the NCPO itself is dissolved. Sacking Prawit now, on the other hand, would split the junta right before the national elections to replace it were due, and could wreck a years-long plan to call them at a point when military-backed parties stand the best chance of winning.
Unsurprisingly, political expediency has so far won out over the junta’s drive to fight corruption, and Prayut and his NCPO colleagues have stood by the defense minister and deputy prime minister, who seems to have little to fear from any investigation. This may change after the post-election upheavals are over, assuming Prayut ever allows the polls, but until then Thailand’s political situation remains too fragile for NCPO members to begin fighting each other.
In the short term then, nothing much about Thailand’s ongoing problems with corruption looks set to change. Things may even be about to get worse, as the new semi-democratic system designed by the military-backed constitution encourages a fragmented party system and created an unelected Senate. Vote buying and patronage could easily become central to political success under such a system. Both have been perennial problems in Thailand since political parties were first legally allowed to compete in the 1946 elections.
The NCPO has long represented a conservative Bangkok-based elite and embraced its worldview. While it will continue to fight corruption in some cases, it will not enforce the rule of law where this conflicts too much with the hidden interests of Thailand’s opaque power centers within either the security services or the Royal court. While this remains the unwritten rule of Thai politics, the fight against corruption in Thailand will never truly be won. Only an end to the current dominance of a well-connected royalist and conservative minority of Thais (ones who currently remain relatively united and on guard against the reappearance of any reforming populist movement, which might threaten their prominent social position) will allow that to happen.
Neil Thompson is a freelance journalist and analyst. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the International Security Network, the Independent, and various other publications. He holds an MA in the international relations of East Asia and is presently based in London.