Soon after seizing power in 2014, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha instructed civil servants to save taxpayers’ money by travelling economy class whenever they fly. The message was welcome, a sign that responsible government was at hand.
Now, though, with the ruling junta still patting itself on the back for pushing its self-serving constitution through a public referendum – which it took as a seal of approval for removing a corrupt regime and for its approach to governing – we have evidence of misdeeds in this administration, too.
The Office of the Auditor General is investigating why Deputy Premier Prawit Wongsuwan and his entourage spent Bt21 million of taxpayers’ funds chartering a plane to take them to Hawaii for a security conference. The Auditor General’s probe appears to constitute damage control on behalf of a government caught with its hand in the cookie jar. No one was supposed to know that General Prawit had blown a bundle getting to the conference of Southeast Asian defence ministers, which their American counterpart, Ash Carter, was hosting.
General Prayut yesterday said he saw no need for an independent committee to investigate the matter, and nor did he see anything irregular in the huge expenditure. Anyone wishing to make an issue out of it, he suggested, should take legal action, as though that would be a viable recourse under his repressive military regime.
Then again, perhaps someone should take the risk and bring malfeasance charges against the government. The fact that no one has proposed doing so reflects a weakness among our civil-society organisations. We need watchdogs with bigger teeth. In a different matter, ThaiPublica is at least trying to take a bite. The independent online media outlet on September 9 asked the Administrative Court to force the Army to disclose the base price for its controversial Rajabhakti Park in Hua Hin, where construction contracts came under suspicion earlier this year.
Prayut daring his critics to take legal action is hardly helpful in situations like these. He is demonstrating the brash arrogance of a military man in place of a statesman’s readiness to reassure the public, whose money is on the table. He doesn’t yet seem to understand that a general’s toughness is incompatible with his role as a public figure and national leader.
To be sure, he is not accountable to the public, having never stood for election. But he has repeatedly invoked noble goals involving accountability, transparency and avoidance of corruption and a majority of citizens are willing to take him at his word. With this
latest suggestion of government wastefulness, he can only maintain their respect if he’s completely honest.
The Boeing 747 chartered for Prawit and his team could have carried 400 passengers, and yet there were only 38 on board. At typical rates for flying on commercial airliners, those 38 officials each spent nearly Bt600,000 – of the public’s money. They could have travelled first class on a scheduled flight for half as much.
Regardless of the results of the Attorney General’s probe, the government has egg on its face. It has played into the hands of its detractors and given former premier Yingluck Shinawatra ammunition with which to counter the junta’s taunts of graft and mismanagement. The money wasted on the chartered flight might be a pittance compared to the many millions squandered on her ill-advised rice price-pledging scheme, but the principle at stake is exactly the same.
The wise course of action for Prayut would be to immediately acknowledge the error, apologise and pledge to establish rules (or belatedly begin enforcing them) to ensure there is no further frivolous spending.