Thailand’s anti-corruption commission needs more transparency and critical reforms

A recent ruling on the infamous investigation into Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister has put the NACC in the spotlight. Mark S. Cogan examines the need for accountability and reform.

Written By:
September 24, 2021
Thailand’s anti-corruption commission needs more transparency and critical reforms
Supporter "Red Shirts" of Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra sit in front of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) after shutting down its gates in Bangkok on February 27, 2014. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

The Central Administrative Court ruled earlier in September that Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) must reveal the findings from its 2018 investigation into the wristwatch scandal of Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. 

The court ordered the NACC to disclose the findings of the now-infamous case, in which Prawit was controversially exonerated, stating the person who initiated the proceedings has the right to access information of state institutions and the NACC is bound to disclose the information under Sections 41 and 59 of the 2017 Constitution. The Central Administrative Court said the release of the information, as well as witness testimonies and the testimony of Prawit himself, would show transparency, accountability and engender public trust in the NACC.

The ruling not only brings back unwanted collective memories of the NACC’s perceived failure to hold Prawit accountable for overt acts of corruption, but it should also renew public discourse over institutional reforms to the anti-corruption body itself. 

In December 2018, the NACC cleared Prawit of wrongdoing on claims he omitted the declaration of 25 luxury watches he had been photographed wearing, including a $90,000 Richard Mille RM29. Prawit claimed he borrowed all of the timepieces from a since-deceased former classmate, Patthawat Suksriwong, and later returned them. 

In January 2018, the NACC dismissed an earlier case involving Prawit, in which he flew to Hawaii for a 2016 meeting costing taxpayers 21 million baht ($630,000). Thailand’s auditor general, general Pisit Leelavachiropas, in August 2016 cleared Prawit and his vast entourage of any wrongdoing in the lavish chartered flight to Hawaii, which included a $17,200 bill for an inflight dinner.

The NACC… has yet to peek into the grotesque wealth of top government officials, including that of Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha

The NACC has long been a topic of conversation, although reform has rarely piqued the interest of the general public or mustered enough political will to facilitate institutional changes, even though NACC officials themselves have been the face of scandal or perceived as too friendly with junta leaders. 

The NACC gets credit for turning on its former deputy secretary-general Prayat Puangjumpa, who was found to have amassed large sums of wealth, including an approximately $6 million townhouse in central London. But it has yet to peek into the grotesque wealth of top government officials, including that of Thai prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Prawit, who are worth 128 million and 87 million baht, respectively. Other key figures are worth considerably more, including deputy prime minister MR Pridiyathorn Devakula at 1.38 billion baht in assets and the Prime Minister’s Office minister ML Panadda Diskul at 1.31 billion baht.

Police general Watcharapol Prasarnrajkit was elected chairman of the NACC in December 2015, receiving seven out of nine votes from his NACC colleagues. Immediately, Prawit’s connection to Watcharapol, his former boss, became a topic of public conversation. Watcharapol was named acting police chief just two days after the May 2014 coup d’état. 

In December 2017, the Thai junta, with Watcharapol as the head of the NACC, attempted to steer more power to the anti-corruption body with a vague new law, as well as attempting to grant it the power to tap the phones of politicians suspected of corruption. Adding to mounting speculation it was too intimate with the military-backed Thai government, the NACC also named the Royal Thai Army as the most transparent government agency, topping the Land Department and the Office of Justice Affairs.

Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan arrives for a photo opportunity with members of the new Thai cabinet at Government House in Bangkok on July 16, 2019. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

As Thailand’s struggles with corruption, implementing the right kind of reform remains troublesome at best. While Article 6 of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) calls for parties to the convention to establish independent bodies tasked with preventing corruption, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. States have vastly different experiences with both centralised and decentralised agencies. 

Power concentrated in a single, independent agency might enjoy success in a country where there are other competent institutions of law enforcement or where they are vested with oversight power. But in Thailand, it’s more complicated. The Royal Thai Police has reputational issues compromising the ability of the NACC to outsource components of corruption policing. In addition, a specialised agency requires independence, which the NACC currently lacks under its current composition.

One well-documented corruption success story in recent decades has been the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) in Hong Kong. In the 1970s, widespread graft in the public sector, including among law enforcement, made Hong Kong one of the most corrupt places in broader Asia. Critical to the ICAC’s success has been a three-pronged strategy of deterrence, prevention and education, with three separate departments responsible for different aspects of anti-corruption. 

The Operations Department, to which more than 70% of resources are devoted, investigates and prosecutes offenders. The other two departments, Corruption Prevention and Community Relations, work to improve prevention systems and procedures, educate the public and enlist public support. Since the launch of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 1995, Hong Kong’s ranking has steadily improved from 17th to 11th best in the world in 2020. Thailand, by comparison, ranked 104th in the world out of 180 countries surveyed last year.

However, Hong Kong’s model would require significantly more resources both on the operational side and enlisting Thai public assistance. The ICAC has a division encouraging a 24-hour reportage of corruption by members of the public, as well as referrals by other line ministries and institutions. Thailand only experimented with a hotline under the ruling junta in August of 2017. 

the NACC has become the target of political wranglings that have crippled its public image as an independent body. 

Additionally, giving the NACC the power to investigate and prosecute corruption allegations to the same degree as the ICAC could also result in the NACC being further used as a political weapon to silence opposition voices, as it has in the past under the administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra, Abhisit Vejjajiva and Yingluck Shinawatra. In Hong Kong, ICAC cases are also prosecuted by select prosecutors to ensure quality and integrity, resulting in a conviction rate of approximately 80%. In contrast, Thailand’s perceived lack of judicial independence has been the subject of much public outrage

Regardless of the model used – ICAC, Singapore, New South Wales Australia or others – Thailand still lacks some of the most basic characteristics determining whether a reformed NACC would succeed, including political will, operational and political independence, institutional capacity and transparency in NACC leadership that would earn the trust of the Thai people. 

Reminders of incompetence are everywhere. From 1999 to 2017, the NACC accepted more than 3,300 cases for investigation, and found evidence of corruption in nearly 1,200. Yet fewer than 10% of those resulted in a conviction that was not immediately overturned on appeal. Only one was a high-profile case, the rest were low-level officials. 

The NACC was born from the 1997 Constitution in a much more democratic period, with most considering this the most transparent and inclusive version of the body in recent memory. Since the 2006 coup d’état, the NACC has become the target of political wranglings that have crippled its public image as an independent body. 

In 2014, royalist factions used the NACC as a vehicle to punish the Yingluck government over the National Rice Pledge Scheme. Today, the NACC is targeting former prime minister Thaksin over his decision to approve THAI Airways purchase of Airbus aircrafts between 2002 and 2004. The move comes after Thaksin amplified his Covid-19-related criticism of the Prayut government via the Clubhouse app using his alias, Tony Woodsome. 

In the absence of regional best practice and political will, the NACC is unlikely to present a strong, independent face. While Hong Kong and Singapore are widely heralded as anti-corruption success stories, they are city-states without the cultural, social and political complexities of a nation-state where populations are more difficult to access, and acts of corruption are less likely to be perceived negatively. 

Until that time, which has been the case for a host of political problems, the only feasible alternative is for citizens, progressive politicians and activists to fan the flames of public anger and discontent. 

Public anger over Prawit’s luxury wristwatches and his ostentatious trip to Hawaii moved the government to action and almost cost Prawit his seat at the table. Public anger forced the NACC to form a panel investigating senior police officers involved in Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya’s case, in which ​​the Red Bull heir was seen to receive special treatment in the criminal justice system after a deadly hit-and-run, while poorer Thais languished. 

Public anger, in the absence of political will, must drive reform.

Mark S. Cogan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan. He is a former communications specialist with the United Nations in Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East.

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