Yesterday I attended the Medhi Krongkaew’s seminar on Corruption and Current Political Developments in Thailand. ((As usual, this summary is based on my notes and memory. If anyone else who was at the seminar wants to add material or challenge my interpretation please submit your comments.)) Medhi, who was sporting the compulsory yellow tie, spoke about his first year (with another eight to go!) on the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC). He emphasised that he was speaking in a personal capacity, but he was clearly keen to present the NCCCs plan for an active drive against official corruption and conflict of interest.

Medhi started out by reflecting on the high profile that the NCCC has received in association with a spate of ministerial resignations for various asset misdemeanours. Strangely, given his strong anti-corruption message, Medhi seemed almost apologetic about the instability that this had created for the Surayud government (poor old Surayud apparently “blew his top in cabinet” as a result of the NCCC’s high profile action). In fact, the NCCC held a press conference declaring that they were just doing their job and did not want to destabilise the government. The NCCC did consider just passing the information quietly to the government (a “whisper in the ear”) but decided that this would compromise their independence. According to Medhi the NCCC had, in a sense, been forced to do their job as a result of journalistic exposures. He also suggested that corruption claims levelled against the government (including the charges in relation to Surayud’s Nakhon Ratchasima resort that is “kind of in the forest reserve”) have been driven by Sonthi Limthongkul’s forces who want to see much stronger action taken against Thaksin. But Surayud is now in a secure position given that the date for the election is firm.

Turning to the future, Medhi’s main theme was the high degree of political uncertainty that will follow the December 2007 election. Given this uncertainty, and the likelihood of substantial political horse-trading and government wrongdoing, Mehdi argued that the independent institutions, such as the NCCC, have to be diligent and very active in doing their job. Even though the NCCC was selected by the coup makers, Medhi argued that their mandate derives from the electorate’s endorsement of the new constitution. He signalled that the NCCC will be active in pursuing corruption and outlined some specific regulatory initiatives in relation to the agricultural sector. For example the NCCC will be developing guidelines for agricultural price-support programs – if government agencies don’t follow these guidelines they will be liable to NCCC investigation. Medhi devoted considerable time to linking the activities of the NCCC to an increasingly active judiciary, partly inspired by the king’s speech of April 2006. He emphasised the high regard in which the judiciary is held in Thailand.

The overall impression I gained was that Medhi, like many others, was attempting to draw a clear distinction between the independent, disinterested and trustworthy appointed public officials on the one hand and the disruptive, self-serving and dishonest elected politicians on the other. In his view it is clearly the appointed public officials who are the “guarantor of political peace in the country.”

In question time I asked Medhi if he saw any tension between the NCCC taking such a strong anti-corruption stance (which advocates respect for the rule of law) and the fact that the current NCCC members had been appointed by a group of people who had overthrown the supreme law (the constitution) by military force. His response was procedural. He argued that he had applied for NCCC membership prior to the coup and had already been subject to parliamentary scrutiny. Immediately prior to the coup he was one of 18 shortlisted candidates being considered by the Senate. Given that he had been through this process he was willing to accept the appointment by the coup makers.

I also asked Medhi how he responded to Transparency International’s finding that Thailand’s corruption had worsened over the last year. He suggested that this may be due to some time lag in relation to people’s perceptions of corruption. He said that the NCCC is working on developing its own index.

Some other interesting points were raised in the discussion:

  • One of the problems faced by the NCCC is the huge number of cases referred to them. Under the new constitution, only cases involving senior public officials (C8 and above) will be referred to the NCCC.
  • If Thaksin returned to Thailand now he would be “the accused” in relation to cases involving him that are already before the courts. On this basis he could be jailed immediately. The progress of these cases will not be affected by the timing of the election. In Thailand once a case is before the court it will usually run its course, partly due to a high degree of respect for judicial process. Nevertheless a new government sympathetic to Thaksin could pass retrospective laws that would clear him.
  • The king will soon be signing a bill aimed at preventing conflicts of interest among public officials.