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Graft gobbling up our dream of democracy - Thitinan Pongsudhirak

country is immune to it. At issue is what happens when corruption happens. News headlines against corruption in major Asian countries this week suggest that Thailand is lagging behind in the anti-corruption struggle. Countries can stay behind in all manner of well-being indicators from growth and education to infrastructure and healthcare, but being left behind by the scourge of corruption is ultimately the worst of all.


China has been out front in fighting corruption. This country has been criticised for human rights violations and autocratic rule, especially now that President Xi Jinping has effectively extended his leadership role for the next decade. China has also verged on belligerence by taking over and making rocks and reefs into artificial islands in the South China Sea, subsequently placing weapons and military personnel on them. Around the Mekong River, China has built upstream and hogged water at the expense of downstream countries. Despite its impressive economic performance, this autocratic country under one-party rule has a lot to answer for.

Yet China arguably gets away with it partly because of its aggressive fight against corruption. Mr Xi himself and his immediate family have steered clear of collusion and cronyism for personal gain and thereby maintain his integrity and mandate to rule. This past week, his anti-corruption campaign began a trial against a powerful former politburo member named Sun Zhengcai on bribery charges to the tune of 27 million dollars (837 million baht). Mr Sun used to be in charge of Chongqing, a huge metropolis of 30 million people. He has pled guilty and will be dealt with accordingly.

This is just a high profile case among many. Last year alone, the Chinese Communist Party looked into 1.25 million cases of corruption and handed out 527,000 punitive measures. The number of corruption cases compared to the country's roughly 1.3 billion people puts the rate at almost one per 1,000. More importantly, big fish at provincial and ministerial levels were included. Some 58 senior officials like Mr Sun were among those punished. The CCP and Mr Xi will have more space to carry out their experience of economic dynamism with centralised control as long as they remain vigilant against graft and blatant conflicts of interest.

South Korea is even more impressive and mind-boggling. Former President Park Geun-hye has been sentenced to 24 years in prison on charges of bribery and abuse of power, which in Thailand would be run-of-the-mill influence-peddling. The former Korean president, in the Thai context, could simply lay the blame on her confidant Choi Soon-sil who did the handiwork in currying favours with major corporations for personal gains. Ms Choi used Ms Park's presidential office and privileges to provide policy-related benefits to certain firms and executives and received financial rewards in return.

Both have been jailed but former President Park would be too big a fish to fry in most countries for charges that could be skewered into indirect conflicts of interest. Yet South Korea's judiciary, in line with millions of Korean people who protested against the Park administration in the streets of Seoul, would have none of it. What's more, Ms Park has decided not to appeal the verdict. This kind of public acceptance for sins committed is very rare in Thailand.

As if Ms Park's conviction is not enough, her predecessor former South Korean President Myung-Bak is also under arrest on some 16 graft charges. In response, Mr Lee offered no denial. Instead he wrote on his Facebook that "I feel that all is my fault" and "I feel a sense of guilt." Just think that in the 1980s, South Korea emulated Thailand and invited former Bangkok Governor Chamlong Srimuang to lecture on how to maintain integrity in office and modesty in lifestyle. South Korea has evidently gone way up on the anti-corruption scale.

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe now faces a second corruption allegation for using his influence to help Kake Education Institution's construction of a veterinary medicine faculty. This comes after his wife Akie Abe's similar positional influence in the Moritomo Gakuen case, a kindergarten that wanted to buy government-owned land at a discount to expand into an elementary school with Ms Abe as honorary principal. This was enough to whip up media scrutiny and parliamentary deliberations. While Mr Abe just about manoeuvred around the first case involving his wife, the second scandal may be harder to get away with.

These Japanese presidential scandals would be seen as innocuous elsewhere but in Japan where the rule of law prevails there is accountability in ways big and small. It is a pity because Mr Abe has been a good Japanese prime minister for the geopolitics of Asia by balancing against China's belligerence. The point is that he should have known better. Being so high in the power hierarchy means having to pay attention to small details of integrity and abuse of power.

Other cases abound, where big fish get caught by the anti-corruption dragnet, including former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva. Two former Mongolian prime ministers have also been arrested on graft charges involving a copper mine venture.

By contrast, big fish usually go free in Thailand. When they are convicted, they somehow get to flee. Here, credit is due to those who stood trial and accepted their prison sentences without flight, including former media magnate Sondhi Limthongkul and finance executive Viroj Nualkhair.

On the other hand, Thailand's anti-corruption standards have sunk lower. In fact, there is technically no more bribery and graft in Thailand because potentially ill-gotten gains, such as dubious luxury watches, can simply be explained away as borrowings. Indeed, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon remains in the dock of public perceptions because his excuse that the expensive watches he has worn came from a deceased friend is just too unconvincing. Perhaps worse is the lame excuse of former top cop, retired police general Somyot Poompunmuang, whose suspicious possession of 300 million baht was explained away in similar terms.

When big fish get away, the law proves not to be sacred and a rule of law cannot hold. Moreover, the lack of equality before the law undermines the social fabric and any shred of sustainable democratic rule because those higher up will feel entitled to abuse power at will with a sense of impunity. Thailand can be behind on many counts on the progress table but, when corruption has been as deplorable as ever with no improvement to cheer on, the country risks going nowhere but down.