National Embarrassment, There Is No Shame
Waiting to make a right turn at the stop light onto the Expressway I casually chatted with my Thai friend, a professor at Thailand’s top university. Several minutes later we follow 5 – 6 cars in front of us into the turn and prepare to pay our toll. As we turn an overweight sweaty police officer directing traffic catches a glimpse of my white face and rushes over in front of my vehicle motioning us over to the side of the road.
This officer never directed one word to me. He didn’t know if I spoke Thai or even acknowledged I was a person. He took his pencil and started drawing on his ticket book explaining to my friend I was in the wrong lane and had broken a serious law. All this time I stared straight ahead doing my best to control my thoughts and words, after all this isn’t the first time this happened. As I sat listening to their exchange, my friend the professor asked why the 5 – 6 cars ahead of me, and the 150 cars behind me, all driven by Thais, weren’t being stopped and in fact were turning from the same lane as we spoke. We were told not to worry about that. She pointed out the sign that showed the lanes you could turn from clearly showing I was in the right lane. We were told not to pay attention to that.
Finally I interrupted. I held up a picture ID and told the police officer I worked for an embassy and I’d heard enough. Still not talking to me, he talked past me to my friend, and asked what I did at the embassy. She said I worked for the anti-corruption division. You never saw a dark brown face turn white so quickly. Of course he couldn’t read my library card but when you know you’re illegally shaking someone down you don’t stop to consider someone could be lying just as much as you are. He wai’d and motioned us on. My friend was livid, this was perhaps the 10th time in two years she’s witnessed such blatant corruption by Thai officials while in my company. A few years ago she told me she didn’t believe me when I first told her it happened, then she saw it. She’s embarrassed for her country. Who wouldn’t be?
I should note that I’ve never been stopped by a regular police officer in any city other than Bangkok in nearly 10 years of driving here, and I’m on the road outside of Bangkok 8 – 12 days a month. This is an important point to keep in mind as I speak about corruption, and perhaps a point you could think about when considering the recent political turmoil. Understanding that institutionalized corruption centers around the nation’s capital will help you understand the very core of the Thai politick.
This isn’t about tickets. The incident was only an example. Did you read today's paper where the Royal Police Testing Center was found to be totally corrupt and police officers were paying to get a passing score on their test? How about the judge who was paid off in the Victor Bout case? The Americans prosecuted for paying the Thai director of the national film festival to carry their films? Pojo getting her refund for the Rachada land fraud case? Really, I could probably list 200+ examples of corruption just from lightly scanning the last six months of online newspapers. Hundreds!
You might ask, where’s the shame? I’m here to tell you there is no shame. In Thailand it’s perfectly acceptable to lie, cheat, extort, use a position of authority to obtain funds or sexual favors and if you dare out the wrong person, murder is just as acceptable. Just ask the three missing Saudi businessmen from 20 years ago, or the hundreds who’ve joined the local flying clubs with the police listing them as suicide and the case is closed before the body arrives at the coroners for an autopsy. Anyone reading the local papers notices a steady stream, and I mean several a week minimum, of local and foreign businessmen and business women who die while “drinking” or some other innocuous activity. How does one strap C4 around their own neck and commit suicide with their hands secured behind their back? I’m not making this stuff up, take 5 – 10 minutes a day and you’ll read about such cases online or in the paper rags several times a week.
We all know it’s true, any Thai citizen you know even casually will admit it’s true. There is no shame in corruption or even murder. In fact, for a career government employee or police officer it's considered an earned right more than it’s recognized as corruption. Seriously. A government employee works for peanuts for 20 – 25 years before reaching a position where they need to sign certain papers or complete certain duties for something to get done – building permits, health certificates, customs papers, anything of that nature. Not everyone makes it that far, only the most corrupt who understand the money they make from their illegal activities must be shared with those who retired before them, and a bit for those below them who look the other way and will one day feed them money from their own illegal activities. Corruption is perpetual.
How many times has the new airport skytrain link stopped construction and the foreign construction companies sent home due to “lack of funds?” There was never a lack of funds (unless you count the generals who drained the countries coffers after taking over the country during the coup), what there was, was a lack of agreement on who should get paid large sums of graft and how much that graft should be. The King Power concession stands at the new airport? The airport taxi stand fiasco? How about the guy who owns the parking garages at the airport who regularly pays the police so people waiting to pick up someone must use the parking garage and not the large shoulders and parking areas on the airport road which appear to be designed for just that purpose?
There is no shame in corruption in Thailand. Instead, when you “earn” a position that enables you to extort graft, it’s looked upon with envy and pride. You’ve reached the pinnacle of your career and feel pride. Other Thais look on you as fortunate, Buddha has smiled on you and your days of good fortune are upon you. After all, that’s the way it’s been done in Thailand since Buddha walked Siam and it’s not likely to change.
I’ve shipped personal household goods to Thailand three times, all three times through big international shipping companies. All three times when my shipments arrived in Thailand my local moving company representative called me and ‘suggested’ a gift of at least baht 10,000 to the customs officer in charge. When I asked why, he said if I didn’t make such a gift my crates were certain to be opened and searched and every time he’s seen that done items have disappeared or been damaged. Sure, I paid. Each time I had valuable camera or electronic equipment where one piece of gear would cost more than 10,000 baht to replace. The last thing I needed was Somchai rummaging around in my belongings, angry because I didn’t pay, and perhaps plant something in my goods. For those of you who know Customs officials, have you ever known a career customs official who didn’t live in a big house and drive at least an Accord or Camry, but usually a Benz or Beemer?
Every politician pushes for major infrastructure projects in their district. But not because it’s good for the community, but because he’ll get paid huge sums to sign off on the paperwork. He’s earned it! His election makes him an important cog in the wheel and each cog must be paid. Anyone heard the expats complain because Indian Kamagra (Viagra) has dried up.. Yes, the police started enforcing the illegal distribution of unlicensed drugs. You see, before they were paid to let in the India manufactured drugs. But now, a Thai corporation makes their own Viagra substitute, so now they get paid to crack down on such companies. Can you guess by whom? And of course the Thai Viagra costs 2 – 3 times more than the India brand.
Let’s talk about pain medication. You know, that medication accident victims need to dull the pain of the bone sticking out of their skin, or cancer patients about to die use to take the edge off unbelievable pain? Anyone notice that in the last 18 – 20 months the international brands of morphine went from a regular supply, to a short supply, to NO SUPPLY for months? Yep, cancer patients and accident victims weren’t getting the pain medications they so direly needed. How do I know? A very good friend of mine is a doctor who specializes in pain. More than a few times I lent a shoulder to cry on in her frustration and pain for not being able to ease the pain of her patients. Why no supply?
There was a pissing contest going on with the person in the Thai government responsible for signing off on all imported drugs. He was being paid by a new Thai corporation who makes.. yes you guessed right.. morphine. He was being paid to NOT let the foreign drugs into the supply chain. Finally the new Thai corporation started marketing their new brand GPO at TWICE the price of the international exports. The hospitals were so glad to finally be able to treat their patients they gladly paid. But it didn’t stop there. When someone finally investigated the product was changed to the “Hexal” brand, and they didn’t even bother to redesign the box or packaging. Someone was proud of their handiwork, proud of the dying cancer patients and accident victims in severe pain who couldn’t be treated. Proud because they earned their position of control and power by being willing to deny these medications to the suffering, and proud because they earned a nice big house and fancy car to show off to their neighbors.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that virtually 100% of infrastructure products, foreign imports of any type, and major foreign investment are king makers. The person who has positioned themselves to be in the right place at the right time where their signature or vote is necessary for the project to go through, has just been made wealthy by virtue of huge amounts of privilege and graft. Thai society and culture know this.
It’s part of their inherent “Thainess” us farangs are said to be incapable of understanding. You see, it starts at the lowest levels of society, the smallest amounts of baht. By the lowest level of Thai government employees with the power to detain, fine, and even arrest and deny the freedom of individuals. The Thai police officer. The men and women in brown who are sworn to protect and serve at the most basic levels of society. Except Thai police have changed the “To Protect and Serve” internationally recognized the world over, to “To Intimidate and Extort..”
I served my country as a soldier for over 20 years and I wore the badge of a police officer for over four years. I know what it means to protect and serve. I know what it takes to maintain civil order. Citizens must have faith in their police and military to follow the orders of their civilian leaders no matter what. In Thailand they’ve had 23 coups in the 78 years they’ve pretended to be a democracy. That’s one coup on average every 3.3 years. The Thai people have taken the two most honored professions I’ve been privileged to serve in, and turned them into criminal enterprises. I hear you saying “not all Thai people..” Okay, perhaps. But I’m purporting that every Thai citizen who looks the other way, who pays graft, who participates in a corrupt system.. is de facto corrupt.
What the average Thai person who de facto supports corruption doesn’t understand, is that through their participation, they are in fact stripping themselves of any power they have as a citizen. Their very individual rights as a citizen. We can all think of thousands of things that need improving in Thailand. Yet, it’s impossible to improve even a single item on the list as long as it’s possible for someone to break or circumvent the law through corruption. Corruption at the street level makes possible corruption at the corporate level. Corruption of our police officers makes possible corruption of our law makers. Any corruption means the people with money can control people without money. It means the people without money are powerless to create and enforce a law which ensures their freedoms if someone with more money can otherwise profit by breaking the law. It starts at the Somchai level.
I’ve always had a “when in Rome” mindset, an almost perfect temperament for surviving outside of my native environment. Lately though I’ve started to see corruption as a civil rights issue, as a racial issue. I understand I’m considered a second class citizen or less by the Thai people and Thai laws support this mindset. By the very color of my skin I’m being targeted for corruption. I understand this, I think many of the Red Shirts understand this, but I don’t think your average Bangkokian Thai understands this at all. Why? Because there’s no shame in corruption, because at their place in society it largely favors their position. At their place in society the ability to corrupt, to extort, to profit from the misery of those of lesser status, is seen as a right. As something to be proud of. This single practice, the practice of corruption, is the only real reason Thailand remains a third world nation. Unfortunately I don’t see it changing. Why? Because there is no shame.
Until next time…
I have noticed this calendar year how cops have become much more aggressive in targeting drivers for supposed wrong-doings. I also hear from bars that owners are being asked to cough up more and more. Things do seem to be getting worse…