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Independent Web News

25 November 2006


by M.Passit

Following yesterday’s special Royal Gazette’s announcement of the 2549 B.E. Decree of the Dissolution of the House of Representatives, today Prime Minister Pongpat Sirichote has confirmed that he had petitioned for His Majesty’s signature in the Decree since 23 November. The Decree has entered into force once it has been announced in the Royal Gazette, according to the Decree, which automatically, by the 1975 Constitution, called for the General Election within 90 days after the Decree has entered into force.

Collapse of the Coalition.

While the sudden announcement has caught the public by surprise, there was anticipation of the dissolution among the Opposition already. Since the Pattaya Scandal has come into public knowledge three weeks ago, three ministers, including two that involved in the scandal, and two deputy ministers have resigned from posts. On 15 November, The Unity Party’s spokesman announced that the party will withdraw from the coalition. And on 22 November, amidst of the motion of no-confidence, Thai Green Party announced that it will withdraw from the coalition, which left only the Democratic Party as government party.

While the collapse of the coalition still left the Democratic Party with the majority of 271 seats out of 521 seats, there is worry in the Democratic Party that many of the representatives may vote against their own party.

According to the interview with the Democratic representative, rep. Prayote Santravute, from Bangkok "The Party has failed the public, and therefore failed its own members and representatives in the House. The leaders of the party simply can’t expect us to vote for them when they’ve failed to answer many questions involving the scandal"

The Scandal

The scandal that has been regarded as the worst corruption scandal in Thailand since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1973 began 3 weeks ago, when Channel 3 News aired the video record of the meeting between 2 ministers and CEO of the Rangsit Auto in the small beach town called Pattaya, just 5 days after the spokesman of the National Liberal Party, the until recently only opposition party, accused the government for the corruption in the Expanded Eastern Seaboard Program.

The Program, which planned for five new industrial complexes in the Eastern coast, along with new high speed train line from Bangkok to Trat, two new highways, along with planed for raising Pattaya to become another major residential area, has been criticized by the opposition from the start.

The National Liberal party claimed that the land which planed to become industrial complexes was already purchased by politicians and some government officials even before the announcement of the plan, and that many big companies and manufacturers has been bribed many government officials involved for bypassing regulations concerning industrial or environmental. However, the government had before discarded the opposition accusation as ‘disillusioned’ or that the claims lack evidence and that many of the lands were still owned by either farmers or a few private individual with no connection whatsoever to the government.

But on the last week of September, Channel 3 News has launched a series of news campaign to investigate the plan. On one episode, which aired on the 2 November, feature the interviews of many farmers in the areas earmarked for industrial complexes. Many of them stated that they had already ‘sold’ their lands but the buyer still allowed them to reside there, some buyers even hire them to reside there under mortgage contracts until further notice. This episode alone caused great suspicion in both the public as well as in the Senate, which immediately promised to set up a special commission to investigate these ‘purchases’ of lands.

On 3 November, however, the station launched the highlight of the series, the videotape that started the Pattaya Scandal. The video record showed the meeting between Mr.Chaisan Tongprasit, minister of Industry, Mr.Sanong Sae-Tang, minister of Transportation and Mr.Pravit Sae-Lee, CEO of Rangsit Auto. While the conversation between the three men in the video doesn’t have much detail, it, however, reveal the connection between the two ministers and Rangsit Auto in the process of purchasing lands.

It has been revealed by further investigation that Rangsit Auto, a joint venture between two Thai car manufacturers and Feihu, a Chinese car manufacturer, was provided secret fund for the two ministers to purchase lands under many nominees for later selling them to the Program. In return, the two ministers will help the company bypass many industrial and environmental regulations, as well as provide further support in funding the company to produce Thailand’s the first fuel cell car. After the company success in producing Thailand’s first hybrid cars five years ago, no one would have suspected the government of providing Rangsit Auto more support, said Mr.Chaisan in the video.

Impact of the Scandal

After the video was aired, Mr.Chaisan and Mr.Sanong immediately resigned from their posts and the Democratic Party. The two now face investigation from both the National Anti-Corruption Office and the National Anti-Laundering Office. Despite the government, and the Democratic Party, claims that the action was done individually by the two ministers and that the government and the party had no part in their action, the approval rate of the government fell sharply. In the poll conducted by Suan Dusit Institute revealed on 15 November, the government approval rate fell sharply from 75% to only 51% and the approval rate of the Democratic Party also fell from 65% to 42%.

One of the reasons that the rate has taken such a nose dive, is that the government goes on with the program, despite the public outcry to halt the Program and investigate all the contracts and procurements involves, claiming that if the Program was halted, it would hurt the nation’s economy as well as investors’ confidences. However, the Program has been finally halted by the Senate’s special commission which was set up to investigate all the contracts and procurements.

In the investigation so far, five companies have been accused for the attempt to bribe government officials, and many contracts and procurements have been canceled, either temporary or permanently. One of them is the procurement to construct the new high speed train line, won by Diandao which is now facing investigation in China for its actions abroad.

The stock market was also hit by the scandal and later by the halt of the Program. On 4 November, SET fell from 2577.25 to 2554.87 and continue to fall for entire week.

Also, the scandal has also created a rift in the coalition government. On 4 November, just one day after the two disgraced ministers resigned, Mr. Natapong Kamsorn, the environment minister, from the Thai Green Party, resigned from his post. He was followed by Sasikarn Virunchai, deputy minister of Industry from Unity Party and Mr. Nitinai Gaewmeungneur, deputy minister of Environment from Thai Green Party. On 5 November, the spokesman of Unity Party announced that the government, namely the Democratic Party, must take responsible of the action of the two former ministers, and on the same day, Mr. Natapong Kamsorn, leader of Thai Green Party, harshly criticized the Democratic Party as ‘Big, Fat, Corrupted and Irresponsible’. However, despite showing support for legal action against their two former members, the Democratic party has done nothing, still claming that the party has no part in the corruption, which has been seen as one of the reasons for the collapse of the coalition.

The Classic Trouble

The Scandal has shocked both the Thai people as well as many foreign observers. Since the beginning of the 1990s, Thailand corruption rate has been improved considerably and there were no reports of the corruption in the government level for nearly a decade. With the strengthen of the National Anti-Corruption Office and the establishment of the special Court of Justice for Political Official to deal specifically with the corruption in the level of the high echelon of Thailand, as well as the new anti-corruption and good office laws passing around 1990s, followed the lead of China’s success, there was belief that the time of major corruption by government was long passed. The Scandal, unsurprisingly, showed that the corruption is still the classic plague that haunts the country.

There were many academic researches that indicated that the problem of corruption in Thailand is deep rooted by its past paternalism in both the political and economical system. It led the lowers to seek support from the higher, businesses from officials and also vise versa which made corruption a severe problem in Thailand throughout her history. Even the transition to constitutional monarchy was not able to change this national psyche, no matter what kind of governments come into power.

Indeed, ironically, it is also corruption that brought an end to military dictatorship that ruled the country since the coup in 1950s. Throughout that period, Thailand was ruled by Field Marshall Salid Thanarath and his military regime. While he’s the major force in pushing Thailand into an industrialized nation by construct highways across the country, open Thailand for direct investment from China, Japan and western countries, the nature of the dictatorship regime and of his surrounding has considerably hampered his work, although his strong nature has prevented corruption from severely spreading. However, upon his death and the succession of the regime to Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn, all things went down hill. Thanom, however, lacked the strong nature of Salid and this made corruption spreading like wildfire throughout Thailand’s political, bureaucratic and economic system. It is estimated that Thailand lost 3 years worth of economic growth due to corruption. In 1973, the regime has come to an end. With the growing decentralization and democratization in China, the stabilizing situation of her neighbors, Thailand grew tired and restless of the military regime.

The final straw, however, was the news that one of Thanom’s ally; Field Marshall Praphas had used the helicopters of the Royal Thai Air force for hunting with his friends in the Kao-Yai National Park and Wildlife Preservation. It made Thai people lose their patience and destroyed what little support the military had, combined with the deliberate postponement of the implementation of the new constitution that was promised after the coup, it led to the largest demonstration in Thailand’s history, the so called ‘October Revolution’, led by university students. After the one day bloodshed, Thanom and his allies were forced by the King to resign and leaved Thailand, later permanently.

With the appointment of Sanya Dharmasakti, Dean of Thammasat University, as interim prime minister, the first step toward a stable democracy had begun. However, as the time has proved, the task was not easy. The situation changed rapidly, as the students involved in the revolution increasingly turned to radicalism, there were fears that they would turn communist and invite the Soviet in. The military threatened repeatedly to intervene when they saw that the government had veered too far to the left for their liking. Fortunately, with the memories of 1973 still fresh, this never happened. With the draft signed by the King in 1975, The 2518 B.E. Permanent Constitution of Thailand has greatly stabilized political situation and ensured an eventual end to the military’s role in Thailand’s politic.

From that time onward, it was the period to find a balance between socialism and free-market economics, as well as the growing influence of neo-Confucianism. It was also the period of reform, economically and politically. With Thailand’s strife to build her own industrial base, there was need for expansion of the country’s infrastructure. The corruption came into light again.

It was first the railway system that got the attention. The organization was, in that time, state-owned, heavily in debt, far from the word of modern and plagued by corruption. Practices that had gone on since the period of King Rama V in the late 19th century were still around; trains were hardly ever on time, and with the development of private transportation, it only options were reform or bankruptcy. The Gauge scandal was the first major corruption case in Thailand after 1973. The scale of the corruption was as big as the organization itself, with saw many forced to retire, fire, sued and in the end, partial privatization. Also, it was because the nation wide construction of new railways for faster train, as well as the removal of the old tracks that made the task monumental both in term of money, men and never the less, corruption. The corruption damaged the Democratic government at that time and set the party back for nearly a decade.

Also, the first true instance of Sino-Thai cooperation came about. While unofficially, Field Marshall Plaek, Salid and Thanom’s predecessor prior 1950s coup, had push Thailand into an ever closer tie with China after WWII, to the utter opposition from the elite bureaucrats, Salid and Thanom remained skeptical to the idea of Sino-Thai "partnership" throughout their rule. While China's hands-off policy during the crisis, a result of the process of democratization then underway in the Empire, made many Thai citizens question the prospect of Sino-Thai cooperation, nonetheless, many in the new government argued that China has great trust in Thai people to come out with the right resolution rather than to directly intervene, thus paved the way for further cooperation. With China offered to help Thailand in term of fund and experience to modernize and industrialize the country, the contemporary "brotherhood" was inevitable. Also, it was the first time that the two began to cooperate and sharing experiences in term of anti-corruption, which would lead to the Justice Department of Corruption in Government Official, the predecessor of the independent National Anti-Corruption Office and National Anti-Laundering Office, at that time the masterpiece from many conferences between the two.

The second major case of corruption took place in 1989. At that time, Thailand economy has grown stronger and stronger due to the world’s economic boom, which will lead to ‘Miracle of Asia’ in 1990s. The Unity party, then one of the major parties, had prepared for further development of Northeastern Thailand, the poorest and least developed region of that time. The plan called for construction of new roads and new railway to link the region’s planned industrial and agricultural bases to the new ports in Eastern Thailand. The corruption came with the construction of the new airport in Khonkan Province. The investigation in the future will prove that corruption had infected throughout the project, from how big the airport will be, what company to construct the runway, which company to buy the restroom utilities from to who will be hire as the general manager. The Airport Case rang home that corruption must be dealt with before too late. It led to the establishment of the National Anti-Corruption Office, the drafting and enactment of the Anti-Corruption Act of 2533 B.E., which will be improved in 1992, and, with the Unity party split in two to form the National Liberal Party, the case end the Unity Party as a major force in Thailand political arena.

As mention above, since then, corruption has become less and less mentioned, and while some cases occurred, they were never big or effect the government. But as the Pattaya Scandal has showed us, the problem was never go away. It just wait underneath the surface, waiting for us to let our guard down and emerge again. And we should take this scandal as the lesson to never let our guard down.

Reaction to the Decree

The Decree has, from yesterday, caused the general public to suspect the government even more. According to the interviews conducted by all the channels, including many SMS voting in all the channels, about 75% of the votes is against or believe that the government is trying to limit the damage cause to the government by the scandal. For example, in the voting conducted Channel 3 News yesterday, 97.28% overwhelmingly voted against the Democratic Party in the question of whether or not the party is responsible for the corruption, in Channel 5 Evening News yesterday, 68.58% voted that they believe that the Democratic party is trying to limit the damage by calling the General Election, hoping that the damage is still not widely spread.

On the political front, the decree has put a stop to the motion of no confidence, but the damage has already been done. The Democratic coalition was bitterly collapsed, which caused the government to dissolve the House. It is expected that none of the three major parties, the National Liberal, Unity Party and Thai Green Party will try to forge another alliance with the Democratic in the future, no matter of the circumstances, under the current leaderships in the Democratic party, added Unity Party’s spokesman.

All the three major parties, however, believed that the Decree is, without doubt, a sign of desperation on the part of the Democratic party. According to rep.Kanitha Sae-Lee, leader of the National Liberal, in her announcement yesterday evening; "The Decree is nothing but a scheme of the Democratic party to avoid further damage that without doubt will be widely spread, which is only the matter of time. They have avoided answering many questions asked by representatives in the motion of no confidence, and the Decree has only confirmed our suspicion." She also promised that if the National Liberal wins the General Election, the party will work with the Senate, which vowed to continue the investigation no matter of the result of the General Election, to further investigate all the government’s procurements and programs, not just the Eastern Seaboard Program.

There are also signs that many representatives of the Democratic party will not run with the party in the General Election. Twelve representatives have already resigned from the party, five joined the National Liberal, three joined the Green, the others have announced that they will run as independent candidate, with many more also expected to resign from the Democratic Party.

The New General Election

By the 1975 Constitution of Thailand, the new general election must be held within 90 days after the dissolution of the House of Representatives. Even the exact date for the General Election has not been yet confirmed by the Election Commission, however, our source in the Commission has told our correspondent that the New General Election might be held in late February in order to avoid the Chinese New Year, the national holiday.

However, many scholars have called for the General Election to be held before the Chinese New Year, which will follow by the state visit of the Chinese Emperor, which will come to celebrate the 225th years anniversary of the foundation of Bangkok, and also her Chinese community, one of the largest in South East Asia.

In the words of prof. Sonthi Sae-Lin, of the Huachiew University’s faculty of Political Science; "It will be more appropriate for our country to welcome the Emperor with the new, clean and elected government, not the government and party that is tarnished by the worst corruption case of this country"


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