By The Nation
It would be inaccurate to class Thaksin Shinawatra and Prawit Wongsuwan as being of the same breed of politician, at least for now. The crucial difference between them is that no one has attempted to prosecute Prawit, the current defence minister and deputy premier, whereas Thaksin, the former prime minister, remains in self-imposed exile because democratic institutions wanted him punished.
Prawit came under suspicion of “unusual wealth” for possessing an armful of expensive wristwatches that he failed to declare among his personal assets, as required by law. The National Anti-Corruption Commission let him off the hook because it found no grounds to pursue legal action.
Thaksin was found guilty in court in absentia for allowing his ex-wife to acquire state-owned land that was up for auction.
In comparing the two men, though, it is no overstatement to say they both did Thailand a disservice by undermining efforts, however weak thus far, to improve transparency in politics and the civil service.
They both diverted the drive for integrity and arrogantly used the scoundrel’s rallying cry of “conspiracy” to denigrate their critics. It was no small irony to hear Prawit say repeatedly that if Thaksin truly wished to honour his ambition of cleaning up politics, he should “return from hiding” and face the legal repercussions from the Ratchadapisek land case. Thaksin’s barbed response, in a tweet, was that a judicial system under Prawit’s purview could not be trusted.
The verbal showdown stemmed from an earlier exchange in which Thaksin said Prawit had changed since “the day he clung to my desk begging” for a promotion in the Army. That remark backfired because Prawit did get his promotion, so it would appear that Thaksin was part of the feudal lobbying culture that has always mired Thai politics.
It must also be remembered that Thaksin was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison while his own political party was in government. That fact is either forgotten or ignored by his admirers, who blame his legal woes wholly on political persecution.
Indeed, the country’s ideological polarisation rooted in the Thaksin years has clouded everyone’s judgement about right versus wrong and stymied attempts to introduce full transparency.
Thaksin gets a lot of sympathy when he bemoans the junta’s refusal to challenge Prawit on his watch collection. But the fact remains that Thaksin in his time violated laws against conflict of interest, was found guilty under a democratic system and fled a country ruled by his own party.
Prawit, in prodding Thaksin to come back and face the consequences, is preaching from the shadows. In terms of our opaque politics, he could be seen as the other half of the problem. He’s done his own part to weaken the push for transparency by refusing to bow out when serious doubt arose about his true wealth.
Thaksin’s continued evasion of punishment does not change the fact that Prawit should have shown integrity by quitting his Cabinet post due to public suspicion.
And his boss, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, should have removed him to salvage citizen trust in a military regime that Prayut has always insisted is temporary but necessary to reform politics. Temporary it might be, but where is there evidence of reform since Thaksin’s day?