Commentators in Thailand often like to assert that rural people are not overly worried about corruption. In my experience this is far from the truth. I have found that discussions of corruption, in both its mundane and more spectacular forms, are part and parcel of local political culture in rural Thailand. What is confusing for commentators, I suspect, is that local evaluations of corruption are subtle. In my 2008 article on the “rural constitution”, I addressed this issue in the following terms:

One of the most damaging aspects of corruption is that it can undermine the electorally important image of personal sacrifice for the common good. But this is a subtle moral economy. Sacrifice in the form of diversion of resources from the private to the collective domain is a highly valued electoral asset. But, at the same time, it is broadly accepted that many of those who are active in the collective sphere will also gain some private benefit for themselves or for their family, kin and close friends. As such, it is regarded as quite normal that political representatives will derive some private benefit from public office. The key is to maintain this benefit at a level that is appropriate. What is appropriate is difficult to judge, and it is in this grey area of exchange between collective and private benefit that conflict often erupts and allegations of corruption are made. These allegations are likely to be electorally potent if there is a perception that collective resources are used for private benefit in a way that directly disadvantages others. For example, in Baan Tiam an early contender in the village headman election was ruled out on the basis of allegations that he had used his position on various village committees to divert communal funds to support his private money lending business. The fact that communal funds were being used to extract punitive rates of interest from fellow villagers was, for many residents, a blatant breach of the moral economy of exchange between the collective and private spheres. It was corrupt.

I would like to immodestly suggest that this subtle moral economy of corruption goes a long way towards explaining the debate about the seizure of a large share of Thaksin’s assets. The court’s decision was informed by the view that deriving any private benefit from public office is inappropriate. But among Thaksin’s supporters, this view will carry little weight. This is not because they don’t care about corruption, but because they assess it using a different framework. For them, any private benefit that Thaksin derived was not inappropriate because it did not disadvantage others. You only have to look at a graph of the SET index to see how compelling this argument can be (click for a larger image)

As Daniel Ten Kate and Anuchit Nguyen writing for Bloomberg point out:

Shin shares gained 121 percent from when Thaksin took office on Feb. 9, 2001, to when his family sold the company on Jan. 23, 2006, compared with a 128 percent gain in the benchmark SET index, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Siam Cement Pcl, Thailand’s fourth-biggest company, which is controlled by the monarchy’s investment arm, gained 717 percent in that time. “Whether Thaksin used his influence to benefit his companies is for the courts to decide,” said Vikas Kawatra, head of institutional broking at Kim Eng Securities (Thailand) Pcl, the nation’s biggest brokerage by trading volume. “We analyze the stocks on fundamentals and price movements and based on past performance versus the SET it appears his companies performed no better than others in the benchmark.”

Of course, as the Bloomberg article hints, Thaksin is not the only person to whom an alternative moral economy of corruption is applied. There is no doubt that members of the royal family have derived enormous private benefit from holding public office. But, in public discussion at least, this is not regarded as inappropriate or corrupt because it was not derived at the expense of others. This perception owes a lot to the powerful imagery of personal sacrifice and public service that has been built up around the monarchy.

Thaksin’s public relations machine was formidable. But in shaping perceptions about the balance between private benefit and public interest, it came nowhere near matching that of the palace.