Tarit Pengdith’s portrayal of himself as a “victim” became even more glaringly ironic a few days ago when the former head of the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) was handed a two-year jail term after being found guilty of unfairly demoting a subordinate in 2012.
A key figure in the country’s political divide, Tarit courted controversy by switching allegiance depending on which party held the reins of power and since then offering the hollow defence that he had no choice in any of the actions he took – because he was only following orders.
He was the department’s most powerful administrator during both the Democrat and Pheu Thai governments. In the last days of the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration he led a crackdown on what he called “terrorists” – red-shirt hardliners and other leaders of their alleged violent plots. Then, when the pro-red-shirt Yingluck Shinawatra camp was elected to rule, Tarit turned his aim against senior members of the Abhisit regime. The hunter of “terrorists” became the hunter of terrorist hunters.
But whether Tarit had a choice in redirecting his loyalties is secondary to the widespread perception of him as a typical senior bureaucrat toiling under a bad system. The court’s prison verdict stemmed from a transfer order he issued in 2012. Army Col Piyawat Kingkate accused him and former Justice Ministry deputy permanent secretary Charnchao Chaiyanukij of malfeasance after being transferred from the helm of the DSI’s Bureau of Intellectual Property Crime to a post elsewhere in government that the colonel considered inferior.
The Criminal Court found Tarit guilty of abuse of power, but acquitted Charnchao, citing lack of evidence. This undoubtedly will amplify talk that Tarit is another “sacrificial lamb” in the political turmoil.
No one in the bureaucracy is entirely free from blame in this enduring crisis. Transfers involving military, police and Finance Ministry officials, for example, have always been believed motivated primarily by politics. While some transfers might be justified in terms of the individual’s abilities, most smack of nepotism, vengeance or partisanship. Col Piyawat argued that his mishandling was among the worst cases on the books, and the court evidently agreed.
The judge ruled that the timing of Piyawat’s transfer was most likely related to the seizure of assets from suspects in a financial pyramid scheme and especially to the subsequent cancellation of that seizure order.
The court suspected the transfer might have stemmed from a conflict with Tarit and duly deemed the former DSI boss guilty of malfeasance.
The fate – and the behaviour – of senior Thai bureaucrats have long depended on which way the political wind is blowing. Neither dictatorial regimes nor fully democratic governments have been able to correct this fundamental flaw in the way the country is run.
The barrier to making adjustments can in part be blamed on the fact that each case has its own characteristics. No one case suggests a blanket assessment of the system as a whole.
The military junta recently purged several senior Education Ministry officials and the public consensus was that it done so in good faith. Thawil Pliensri, a National Security Council official removed from his post ostensibly for justifiable reasons, helped trigger the collapse of the Yingluck government because the judiciary saw his transfer as part of a scheme to install a politically connected figure as the new police chief. There was also bureaucratic involvement in the massive graft uncovered in the rice-pledging scheme.
Clearly, reforming the bureaucracy will be complicated. As an initial step, we need the accused officials to abandon the “victim of the system” self-defence. If the bureaucrats do their duty conscientiously, in the best interests of the citizenry, and refuse – backed by the courts – to implement damaging orders at the whim of politicians, we can at least hope that the problem will take care of itself.