In my last post, I discussed the recent charges brought by Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Committee (NACC) against the current Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, for failing to prevent corruption in the Thai government’s controversial (and recently discontinued) rice purchasing program. There are a few respects in which this case raises important questions not just for Thailand, but for anticorruption enforcement more generally. One, which I discussed last time, is the fact that the NACC has charged the Prime Minister not with engaging in corruption, but with (criminally) failing to prevent corruption. Another concerns how the NACC is managing – or failing to manage – the delicate and difficult politics of bringing charges against a sitting Prime Minister in the midst of ongoing political turmoil, in which the Prime Minister and her party remain very popular with much of the nation — and would almost certainly would have won the election that opposition protesters effectively blocked. My educated guess is that if you were to ask members of the NACC how the political situation affected their decision-making, they would say that it had no effect at all – they simply followed the evidence where it took them, without fear or favor. This is what anticorruption enforcement officials always say, at least publicly. I suspect they may actually believe it, and perhaps it’s (sometimes) true. But anticorruption enforcers operating in politically difficult environments often do, and often should, think carefully and strategically about the constraints and opportunities those environments create – Gabriel Kuris’s studies of the Indonesian KPK (here and here) provide nice evidence of that.
So, was the NACC’s decision to bring these charges against the Prime Minister at this moment a politically rash decision, or a politically shrewd one? It’s easier to make the case for “rash”, but at the risk of revealing my ignorance of Thai politics (or my ignorance more generally), I’m going to make a tentative case for “shrewd”.
Here’s the case for “rash”: Thailand is in the midst of a political crisis, pitting the governing Pheu Thai party, which (in its current or previous incarnations) has won every election since 2001 and commands the support of a majority of Thais (particularly in the poorer rural Northern part of the country) against the traditional elites, particularly the more educated and affluent population concentrated in Bangkok and in the South. Opposition protesters succeeded in blocking an election that the government would almost certainly have won, and opposition protesters have had violent clashes with both police and pro-government demonstrators, leading to several deaths and hundreds of injuries. The NACC, despite its official neutrality and non-partisan status, is viewed by many government supporters (fairly or unfairly) as aligned with the urban elites, and hostile to the governing party. For the NACC to weigh in at this moment, bringing corruption charges against the PM—on a particularly expansive and relatively untested legal theory—risks worsening the crisis and marginalizing the NACC in the process.
But let me lay out the tentative case for “shrewd.” To do this, it’s important first to provide a bit more background on the rice purchasing program at the heart of the corruption. Simplifying a bit, in 2011 the government came up with a scheme to subsidize Thai rice farmers who, not coincidentally, are among the main supporters of the Pheu Thai party. Under the scheme, the Thai government purchased rice from Thai farmers at well close to 50% above market prices, which the government would store. The government reasoned that, because Thailand is one of the world’s leading rice exporters, by withdrawing Thai rice from the market, it would drive up the world market price—and the government could then open its warehouses and sell its stored rice on the world market at a higher (quasi-monopoly) price, and so would be able to recover the amount it paid in above-market rates to farmers. Any competent economist would say that this scheme made no sense—and many said exactly that. But the Thai government pressed on, with disastrous results. It turns out that although Thailand is a major rice exporter, it didn’t have nearly enough market power for this scheme to work; rice buyers turned to other exporters (in places like India and Vietnam), and the Thai government was left with warehouses full of rice, which the Thai government was then desperate to unload before the rice rotted away. The government tried desperately to organize government-to-government rice purchase agreements, for example with China, though many fell through. All in all, the scheme has cost the Thai government around US$4.4 billion, maybe more, and recently the government finally abandoned the program altogether. Importantly, at every stage of the rice purchasing program, there have been allegations of corruption, ranging from smugglers illegally importing rice from Myanmar and Cambodia to sell to the Thai government, to shady arrangements in the government-to-government sale agreements involving shell companies controlled by individuals with close links to the ruling party who would stand to make huge profits from the sale arrangements. But equally importantly, the biggest problem with the rice purchase scheme was not the corruption (despite what many Thais, including Thai economists, seem to thing), but the scheme itself, which would have been an economic debacle even if it had been run with complete integrity at all levels. Finally, because of the program’s economic failures, the Thai government has not been able to pay all the farmers the amount it had pledged under the scheme, leading some farmers—usually among the current government’s strongest supporters—to join in anti-government protests.
So with that background, here’s the argument as to why the NACC’s approach has been politically shrewd:
First, in choosing to target Prime Minister Yingluck’s alleged dereliction of duty in connection with corruption in the rice purchase program, the NACC has selected perhaps the one corruption allegation against the PM and her Pheu Thai party in which the primary victims are the party’s main supporters. There are plenty of other allegations of corruption against Pheu Thai and the PM, including those related to the government’s response to the 2011 floods and subsequent water management projects, and, perhaps most significantly, serious and credible allegations of electoral fraud in 2011. But however much those issues might resonate with the Bangkok middle class, they would be unlikely to diminish the fervor with which poor and rural voters have embraced Pheu Thai, and an NACC prosecution on those issues would probably be seen as purely political. The botched rice purchasing program, by contrast, may be the one issue where even the government’s traditional supporters might find themselves in sympathy with the NACC.
Second, and closely related, the NACC’s action on this case both keeps attention on the rice purchasing scheme, and suggests a connection between the failure of the program – and the fact that many farmers aren’t getting the payments they were promised – and the corruption of the current government. As noted above, it’s not clear that corruption was the main problem with the program (though corruption was no doubt extensive). But framing the failure of the rice program as a matter of bad economic policy is much less likely to reduce support for the government in the rural Northeast than is framing the failure of the program as the result of corruption. Furthermore, by highlighting that connection, the NACC may be able to impress upon many poorer Thais the idea that the corruption in the Pheu Thai leadership has tangible consequences for their day-to-day lives, rather than seeming like an abstract concern of snobbish educated elites.
In sum, even though corruption was probably not the most serious problems with the rice purchasing program, and even though the corruption in the rice program is probably not the most serious corruption allegation against the Pheu Thai government , the NACC’s decision to target alleged corruption in this particular program may prove politically astute, in that this particular issue has the greatest potential to attract support for the NACC’s action from Thais who might otherwise be most inclined to support the government. And that potential ambivalence among (or divisions within) the government’s traditional supporters might give the NACC more freedom to operate, and to press forward with its charges against the PM, than would have been the case had the NACC focused on virtually any other corruption allegations.