Are the Thai Anticorruption Agency’s Charges against the PM Politically Rash or Politically Shrewd?

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.

8 thoughts on “Are the Thai Anticorruption Agency’s Charges against the PM Politically Rash or Politically Shrewd?

  1. It sounds a bit as if the NACC decided on all this itself. In fact, 146 Democrat Party MPs, in November 2013, passed a petition through the Senate Speaker to the NACC asking to investigate her with the aim of impeachment.

    • Fair enough. Though I assume the NACC has some discretion with respect to whether, when, or how to push ahead with this. Or am I wrong about this? You’re clearly much more knowledgeable about the Thai political-legal framework than I am, so it would be great to get your insights on that question.

      That said, your observation is a good one, and I wonder if some of what I said about the politics here might apply as much or more to the MPs as to the NACC — in light of the politics of the situation, it may have made most sense to focus on corruption in the rice program, in the hopes (perhaps unrealistic) of driving a wedge in the Pheu Thai base.

      • There has been a constant flow of charges against the Yingluck government brought by the Democrat’s legal team to the Constitutional Court and the NACC. Sometimes, their like-minded friends in the Senate have joined them. Another impeachment case concerns the constitutional amendment regarding the composition of the Senate. Since the Constitutional Court had declared this invalid, the NACC is now investigating the MP and senators involved for initiating impeachment procedures. Next will probably be a case stemming from the Constitutional Court declaring the 2 trillion infrastructure borrowing bill unconstitutional. Finally, yes, though the NACC is mandated to proceed without delay, it could have dragged its feet, more or less. This has been criticized with a case against the previous PM, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Though it has been with the NACC for a long time, there does not seem to have been any progress.

        The difference between constitutional proceedings and criminal proceedings can also lead to the situation that, e.g., a political party (such as Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai) is dissolved by the Constitutional Court based on certain assumptions about the evidence, while the criminal proceedings against the people involved, many years later, find that the evidence is insufficient for finding them criminally liable.

  2. The NACC is a 100% politicized entity operating not in a “legal/Rule of Law” framework but as per instructions from various Royalists of Influence. While they are charging the PM Yingluck with failing to block so-called “Corruption”, they have not actually showed any proof whatsoever of any actual corruption. Nor apparently are they intending to. So we have the ludicrous situation of a PM being charged and being put in jeopardy of being impeached and her legal team is left with defending her against the charge of not blocking “Corruption” yet not being able to dispute or cross-examine or refute any actual evidence of a corrupt person or corrupt act. It is a parody of a legal situation…a sort of kangaroo or Alice in Wonderland situation.

  3. I think the elite groups who are attempting to subvert the government were most incensed by imposition of the 300 baht a day minimum wage. How is that relevant? If, as recently as 2012, the average daily cost of labour (for rice or rubber production) was less than 200 baht a day (and in some places around 150 baht per day), then this just “might” have some impact on the political logic behind the economics of the rice pledging scheme.

  4. The farmers who protested against the government were mostly from opposition party controlled areas. One group was led down to Bangkok by a politician who had recently lost a by-election and, it was speculated, wanted to indicate to potential constituents that he still had the clout to get things done. He led his farmers down to Bangkok, making ominous noises about heading for the airport, met with government officials, secured a payment for the next week, then went back upcountry.

    The “farmers turn against Yingluck” narrative disappeared as quickly as it had arisen.

  5. The NACC has not been forthcoming about the charges against Yingluk or her government. Because they won’t release information about the charges, we have to rely on news accounts, which describe the charges as one of “dereliction of duty”. (See linked article bleow) In other words, this is not “cronyism”, but an alleged failure to uncover alleged corruption in a government program. Making matters worse, information is not provided on the allegedly corrupt activity or how the government was derelict in failing to uncover such alleged corruption.

    Since the NACC won’t provide a detailed account of the underlying fraudulent activity, its very difficult for the government to rebut any claim that it was derelict in uncovering such corruption (even assuming a failure to uncover corruption is tantamount to corruption). And this has not been the first time this has occurred. Related bodies, such as the Judicial Assets Scrutiny Committee (JASC), have been remarkably reluctant to disclose of even hear evidence. JASC secretary Kaewsan Atibodhi famously claimed in a politically charged case that “evidence and witnesses are useless,” with one of its panels recommending legal action without hearing 300 witnesses or considering 100 additional pieces of evidence (Bangkok Post, 9 April 2008). When the Committee’s tenure expired, the former junta members attended a farewell party at the Army Club, promising to protect its legacy (Bangkok Post, 1 July 2008). Needless to say this doesn’t look good. And it is not good for anti-corruption enforcement in Thailand. It makes anti-corruption enforcment begin to look like a political tool rather than a real exercise in

    The NACC is now limiting Yingluk’s ability to call witnesses. This is quite alarming in a case where the stakes are high as impeachment of a political leader.

    The heading to this article asked if the NACC was being rash or shrewd. I would say every rash. These sorts of ploys undermine its legitimacy as an impartial body. This not only has consequences for the case against Yingluk, but future anti-corruption cases.

  6. Apologies, but the third to last paragraph should have ended with: “anti-corruption enforcement”.

    I think Thailand makes an excellent case study in the dangers of politicized “anti-corruption” enforcement. The agencies involved in anti-corruption cases start issuing ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ edicts and rulings. Its fascinating to watch and analyze. And its ia danger that extends well beyond Thailand.

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