PHUKET: Though the recently deceased Phuket Provincial Administration Organization (PPAO) President Paiboon Upatising will no longer be called to task for alleged corruption in the development of the PPAO Hospital, the case will continue, confirms Preechanun Pumlek, Chief of the Phuket office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).
To see the much respected and loved elected official removed from office through Article 44 might have come as a surprise to those new to the island. However, seasoned expats, frequent visitors and local Thais know the island is rife with corruption at all levels. Nonetheless, prior to his death from colon cancer, Mr Paiboon was sure that the charges levied against him by the Auditor General Office (OAG) would be swept away.
Corruption is not unique to Phuket, or even Thailand, which was recently ranked 85 out of 175 countries by global corruption watchdog Transparency International (TI). However, rampant graft in Phuket is driven by several unique qualities of the province that are not seen to such a degree elsewhere in Thailand, explains Surin Bamrungphol, founder and president of the Phuket Anti-Corruption Network.
“Three major factors continue to contribute to corruption on the island: the tradition of illegally fast-tracking projects, which has been around since the tin mining era; the vast amount of money flowing into the island via the tourism industry; and the nationwide standardization of government employee salaries regardless of the cost of living,” said Mr Surin.
“Perhaps the largest issue of the three comes down to income. Officers do not make enough money to live in Phuket, as it is significantly more expensive to live here than any other province. Additionally, Phuket often attracts high-ranking officers from outside the province, who the local officers have to host and support with money from their own pockets.”
From 2007 to 2012, overall inflation in Thailand was measured at about 16 per cent, but Phuket saw a 5-year inflation rate of 26 per cent. In other words, during that period, the cost of living in Phuket rose at a rate about 60 per cent higher than that for Thailand as a whole. Nonetheless, government officers are paid based on their rank and position, with no adjustments made for location.
To better understand corruption on the island and to highlight which offices are the ‘most corrupt’, Dr Surin began a three-part, Thai-language corruption survey in 2013. Dr Surin is not yet ready to release the results for 2015, which explore solutions for corruption on the island. However, he did go into details about last year’s results.
From May 2013 into 2014, 1,200 surveys were handed out to students, government employees, local business owners and residents of all ages. The team received 611 responses.
“The questionnaires asked participants to rank the top ten most corrupt offices in Phuket. Additionally, it sought information about the type of corruption perceived or witnessed,” Dr Surin said. “We asked questions such as, ‘When you did official business with this department, did you have to pay money under the table?'”
A number of studies have called into question the validity of survey-based data collection methods. Probably the most widely debated issue, with regard to corruption surveys, is the relative value or reliability of perception-based versus experience-based data, reports Transparency International (TI) in its publication ‘Gateway Corruption Assessment Toolbox’.
“While there is far from a consensus on the issue, experience surveys are usually considered more reliable to measure petty corruption, while perception surveys are deemed more appropriate for shedding light on the prevalence of grand corruption (policy capture, nepotism and so on). Furthermore, while there is some good evidence of a strong correlation between corruption experience and perception, this trend is uneven across countries,” the publication states.
“There may, in some cases, be increased levels of tolerance toward (and hence more favorable perceptions of) corruption in areas where corruption experience is high, or conversely, heightened awareness of (and hence less favorable perceptions of) corruption in areas where there is a greater focus on tackling corruption by authorities.
“Other factors which may affect the perception of the level of corruption in a country, regardless of actual experience, include economic development, trust in government institutions, press freedom, population size, education, age, employment status, or the business environment.”
The business environment in Phuket is exceptionally fertile for corruption, says Dr Surin.
“The island is developing rapidly, with new businesses opening all the time, bringing in fresh money,” he says. “Additionally, more and more people are moving to Phuket to take advantage of the economic growth, despite the increased cost of living. These factors make it a prime location for the continued growth of corrupt practices.”
The top ten ‘most corrupt’ offices out of the 25 options presented in the survey in 2014 were the local police; the Land Department in Phuket Town and Thalang; local government bodies, including the Phuket Provincial Organization (PPAO), local administration organizations (OrBorTor) and tessabaans; Thalang District Office; Muang District Office; Kathu District Office; Phuket Immigration Police; Natural Resources and Environment Phuket Office; the Phuket Tourist Police; and Satree Phuket School.
As the survey was in Thai-language only, it was not sent to international tourists or members of the expat community, notes Dr Surin. Nonetheless, Phuket Immigration Police and the Phuket Tourist Police made the top ten list.
A number of corrupt activities were flagged in the survey as regularly occurring in Phuket. They ranged from getting students into well-established schools, to officers making payments to higher-ranking officials in order to secure better positions.
“The list of forms of corruption is extensive. However, expediting services is a commonly cited form of it, as is paying bribes to gain special permission for services, registrations or verifications. There were also allegations of medical equipment purchases being centered around the medical company providing free overseas trips to doctors,” said Dr Surin. “However, corruption in the police forces, which made up three of the top ten government bodies in 2014, is by far the worse problem.”
In general, commanders are effectively in charge of controlling their officers, explains Dr Surin.
“And ultimately, money buys loyalty,” he adds.
Phuket Provincial Police Deputy Commander Peerayuth Karajedee was not surprised when confronted with the results from last year’s survey.
“I cannot deny that there is a problem with police corruption throughout Thailand, including Phuket,” Col Peerayuth said. “The Royal Thai Police is a big organization and every organization has good and bad people working for it.”
However, the results ultimately are not helpful for police attempting to rein in corruption, said Col Peerayuth.
“The results show overall perceptions, but fail to provide the leads necessary for us to take action,” Col Peerayuth said. “We need everyone out there to help us ensure government officers are dutifully fulfilling their responsibilities. The police force in Phuket is simply too small given the number of people on the island.”
Dr Surin hopes that his anti-corruption network will continue to strengthen, in order to take more direct action and support police officers attempting to curb corruption.
“At a national level, we already have organizations that do this. However, having our own anti-corruption network on Phuket is more effective,” he said. “This is the power and responsibility of a civil society. We utilize numerous aspects of Phuket for our own benefit and should not ignore illegal activities here.”
Dr Surin says that one of the largest battles in the war on corruption is the battle against apathy.
“Some people think corruption has nothing to do with them because they do not see how they are directly affected,” Dr Surin notes. “However, we are all affected by corruption. We pay taxes and our taxes must be spent for the benefit of our society as a whole, not just to be put into the pockets of some individuals.”
The alleged misappropriation of government funds is exactly what led to the suspension of Mr Paiboon by the OAG, which recently launched a public campaign about its fight against corruption.
“I would urge everyone to keep an eye on government projects,” said OAG Auditor-General Pisit Leelavachiropas. “If you see anything suspicious about the way state money is spent, please inform us through our anonymous hotline.”
The OAG can be contacted at 02 271-8000 at all time.
— Chutharat Plerin
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