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Corruption, Morality and the Politics of Reform in Thailand, by Aim Sinpeng (Guest Contributor)

posted Nov 25, 2014, 9:44 PM by Joel Selway   [ updated Nov 25, 2014, 11:25 PM ]
Following the May 22 military coup earlier this year, Thailand's 19th such coup attempt, General Prayuth Chan-ocha justified the takeover with the need to fight deeply-entrenched corruption in the Thai political system. The ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra was quickly summoned for questioning and subsequently accused of large-scale corruption and nepotism. Indeed, corruption has been the single most cited reason for the seizure of power from governments in Thailand. How is corruption related to the legitimacy of governments in Thailand? Rather than answer this question quantitatively—for an example see Joel Selway’s post from last week on decentralization and corruption—I present qualitative evidence from some of my recent research that traces the meaning of corruption across different time periods and political groups within Thailand. I argue that the term "corruption" itself has a contested meaning in Thailand and that differences in its interpretation reveal the competing political values whose irreconcilability are at the very heart of the coup. Thus, rather than quantitative changes in a legal-rational conceptualization of corruption, changes in its normative meaning and its relation with governments’ legitimacy are what make coups so frequent in Thailand.
In my recent article, "Corruption, Morality and the Politics of Reform in Thailand, published in Asian Politics and Policy, I examine the discourse on corruption of the reform movements between the two coup d'états in Thailand in 1991 and 2006. I focus on the reform efforts that culminated in 1/. the 1997 constitution and 2/. the establishment of the major opposition movement in Thailand today, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). I do this by examining the speeches of over twenty key reformists across the two eras as well as numerous speeches of PAD leaders between 2005 - 2006.
I find that PAD's conception of corruption was intertwined with the notions of morality, nationalism, and royalism, which differed from what was envisioned in the 1997 constitution. When Thailand passed the 1997 Constitution, designed to curb corruption and improve accountability, many had high hopes that the new institutions would rectify the country’s corruption-ridden politics. Yet the reformists in the 1990s largely focused on a legal-rationalist definition of corruption - the misuse of public office for private gains - and sidestepped other dimensions of legitimacy, one based on normative legitimacy. The rhetoric and discourse of corruption during the PAD mobilization effort showed the prominence of this normative undercurrent of corruption. Because the 1997 constitution represented largely an “institutional approach” to counter corruption, it failed to capture a more complex, value-based corruption.
More importantly, as PAD’s basis for opposition to the Thaksin government was based more on the value-based conceptions of corruption, existing institutions and mechanisms created following the 1997 Constitution were unable to appease PAD supporters. One of PAD's main criticisms of Thaksin was what they referred to as "policy-based corruption," large-scale corruption committed by those at the highest political positions through national policy. The opposition believed that Thaksin, through his party Thai Rak Thai (TRT), abused his executive power to enrich himself and his cronies. Interestingly, this notion of corruption was not as much about the misuse of public office, but more an attack on Thaksin's moral and ethical character. For example, the discourse around the sa [les of Shin Corp, the Shinawatra's flagship business, to Singapore-based Temasek Holdings, focused largely on how telecommunications constitute a national asset and cannot be sold to foreigners rather than the breaking of law. Moreover, "national assets" belong to the rightful owner of the land, which in PAD's mind is the king. By selling Shin Corp, Thaksin was corrupt not only because he used his position as the prime minister to manipulate the law that facilitated this sale, but PAD also believed that Thaksin was disloyal to the King and unpatriotic. "Thaksin's action [the sale of Shin Corp] is no longer an issue about legality, but an issue of morality...knowing what is right and what is wrong. You cannot buy righteousness with money," said Suriyasai Katasila, one of PAD's top leaders. Similarly, the PAD-owned online newspapers, Manager Daily, wrote "The King said not to let evil people run the country....and Thaksin committed great sins." [p.532]
Thus, the coup d’état of 2006 perhaps was not an “unintended consequence” of the 1997 constitution, as some scholars have suggested (Pongsudhirak, "Thailand since the Coup" 2008; Kuhonta, "The Paradox of Thailand's 1997 Constitution" 2008), but rather part of a reform process to incorporate normative values of a more moral, nationalistic, and royalist Thailand. Building institutions as a means to reduce corruption can work if political elites and the mass alike agree on what "corruption" is. For PAD, independent bodies like the National Anti-Corruption Commission may help to curb instances of misuse of public funds but it cannot create moral and ethical leaders. Given PAD's rather normative understanding of such term, it is no surprise that a new constitution or new institutional arrangements in the polity are unlikely to keep them from protesting.
A major justification for the May 2014 coup d’état that ousted the Thaksin-aligned Pheu Thai Party was once again corruption. The newly formed opposition alliance, People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC)—largely backed by former PAD supporters—had rallied against the Yingluck Shinawatra government for months under the “Reform Before Election” campaign. Indeed, the PAD’s discourse on corruption and its associated norms carried over to the PDRC when discussing Pheu Thai’s abuse of power and how they envisioned political reforms. Both PAD and PDRC saw corruption as being related to its pro-monarchy, conservative, and nationalistic views. The "No Vote" campaign launched by the PDRC, for instance, was a reaction to what its supporters understood as a very "corrupt political system, where votes were bought and sold to the highest bidder. This "illegitimate" electoral system in turn produced "bad politicians" who were "immoral." The PDRC's Reform Before Election platform, thus included measures to temporary end electoral politics to clean up "bad people" from politics and bring in "khon di" (good, righteous people) to govern the country, as it has been long advocated by King Bhumibhol.
Such viewpoints have driven supporters of PAD to oppose democratic politics and for some, also support coups. The ultimate danger of “getting rid of corruption” in Thailand, thus, is that it could mean a return to authoritarian rule.

Dr. Aim Sinpeng is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political Science, McGill University, and a Research Associate at the Citizen Lab of the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Aim completed her PhD in Political Science at the University of British Columbia in 2013. Her main research areas include democracy, regime transition, and digital politics with a regional focus on Southeast Asia. Beginning in January 2015, Aim will be a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.