MotherJones MJ93: The Course of Corruption

In Thailand, where coups are common and the military is accustomed to making its own rules, a democratic movement is slowly gaining ground. Its success or failure could determine the future of democracy in Southeast Asia.


A visitor trying to understand Thailand might begin by studying the place of golf in Thai society. A golf boom has been sweeping the country for several years, with 140 courses now in operation, 160 more in the planning stage, and an eventual total of 1,000 predicted. Businessmen take to the links to cement deals, military officers to plot their future economic conquests, and foreign diplomats to make informal contacts with government officials.

But the explosion of golf courses has been inspired primarily by Japanese tourists. Because the scarcity of land in Japan has propelled the price of golf to prohibitive levels, a Japanese businessman can fly to Thailand and spend a weekend on the links for less than it would cost him to play in Japan. The businessman can also look forward to two fringe benefits: Thailand’s year-round warm weather and the country’s female caddies, who are employed in a system that, in the words of one Thai government official, has made “golf tourism and sex tourism one and the same.”

In a country already ravaged by pollution, where unrestricted logging has reduced forest cover from 53 percent of the land to just 18 percent, golf courses are contributing to further the environmental damage. Drought conditions in recent years have exacerbated a serious water shortage in Thailand, and each golf course consumes enough water for a village of 1,200 people. The courses are covered mainly in Bermuda grass, which to survive in the tropics requires large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, which contaminate underground water supplies and nearby rivers.

Unfortunately, top Thai officials have little concern for the environmental impact of the courses, because they’re among the most avid golfers. In November 1990 the Far Eastern Economic Review covered a press conference by then-Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhaven after he met with Margaret Thatcher in England. “Chatichai gave only oblique replies to most of the questions he was asked,” the article stated. “However, he gave a quick, direct reply when asked about his country’s position on the Gulf Crisis. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I will be playing golf this afternoon.'”

When a golf course is built, speculators, developers, and their backers in government and the armed forces make a fortune from the increase in property value. An official in a Thai ministry explained how the system works: “A lot of these courses are built on forest reserves. A middleman goes to the farmer and says, ‘You’re on forest land; sell it to me before the government takes it away.’ The speculator bribes the district officer to give him a title to the land. Now that the land has a title, it’s worth many times what he pays for it. Then he sells it to the golf course company.” On occasion, developers have resold land for as much as one hundred times the original price.

The Thai military, quick to seize any opportunity for profits, hasn’t hesitated to capitalize on the popularity of golf. “These guys are not soldiers; they are businessmen and politicians in uniform,” said a Western military officer with longtime connections to the Thai armed forces. “National defense is about sixth on their order of priorities. Only after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979 did they even begin to look at protecting Thailand’s borders. They are the most skilled in ripping off the system that I’ve ever seen. They’ve invented ways of graft no one has ever heard of.”

In Kanchanaburi Province west of Bangkok, known to tourists as the site of the bridge over the River Kwai, a local newspaper editor showed me a prospectus for a golf course under construction. The chairman of the board was a general, and another general and an air force chief marshal headed the list of advisers. “The military has control over all the unoccupied land in the province,” he said. “Five years ago there were no golf courses in Kanchanaburi, and now ten are in operation and seventeen more are planned.”

In June 1991 Thai journalists discovered that a golf course being built northeast of Bangkok encroached on Thailand’s most famous national park and that the developer had blasted away a hill in the park to join two roads. Although the military denied any connection to the course, their credibility came into question when Bangkok newspapers ran a picture of Jack Nicklaus (whom the developer had paid a reported $1 million to lay out the course) boarding an air force helicopter to survey the land.

The mixture of golf with economic and political power gives an important insight into Thailand: in this country, nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems. The sexual entertainment that street hawkers brazenly advertise seems to indicate extreme tolerance by the authorities, yet the mildest criticism of the government can result in a jail sentence. Although Thailand has one of the highest economic growth rates in the world, few of the forty-eight million people who live outside Bangkok benefit from it.

And last year, in this land of reportedly gentle and gracious people, soldiers murdered demonstrators with a ferocity that equaled that of the Chinese military in Tiananmen Square.

Discerning reality in Thailand is important, because this nation is one of the latest and most significant converts to the ranks of democracy. During the Vietnam War, Thailand stood as the key “domino.” If South Vietnam fell to Communism, the argument went, Thailand would be next, and if Thailand succumbed, all of Southeast Asia would go. Now the domino is leaning toward democracy.

Thailand’s experiences with the democratic process have been uneven. Since 1932, when a coup against the country’s seven-hundred-year-old absolute monarchy stripped the king of all but behind-the-scenes influence, Thailand has seen eighteen military coups (one more than the number of general elections), and military strongmen have ruled for forty-eight of sixty years. In early 1990 Chatichai, the golf enthusiast–himself a former general but at that point the democratically elected prime minister–bragged that he had set a new record of one year and seven months in office, “the longest democratically elected government in Thailand’s history.”

Chatichai presided over a period of unprecedented growth, with the economy expanding by double digits and per capita income rising to $1,420 in 1990, almost double what it had been five years before. But this economic boom only exacerbated Bangkok’s problems as a city of traffic jams, health-threatening air pollution, and untreated sewage, whose stench assaults visitors from canals, sewer gratings, and sometimes even the bathroom drains of luxury hotel rooms.

Antiquated buses still spew clouds of black smoke on hapless pedestrians. Swarms of motorcycles roar down the streets and sidewalks, turning walking into a game of Russian roulette. Police directing traffic wear gas masks, and forty percent have been treated for respiratory problems. During the summer monsoon season, when the streets routinely flood, the evening rush hour can last as late as midnight. On one particularly bad day last summer, city officials issued an advisory urging motorists to carry food, water, and containers to use as toilets.

But the Chatichai administration’s crucial failing lay in its corruption. “The Thai word for taking a bribe out of a program is the same as to eat,” said Suphat Hasuwanakit, a medical student who heads the Student Federation of Thailand. “They said that Chatichai had a ‘buffet cabinet,’ because everyone was eating.”

Like previous administrations, Chatichai’s government maximized corruption by dividing responsibility for any project among a multitude of agencies. Several expressway and mass-transit projects were on the drawing board for years, each the pet of a different government agency. In 1991 a consultant discovered that the agencies had never coordinated the projects, so that no provisions had been made to transfer people from cars to mass transit, or from one elevated rail system to another. When he superimposed the projects on a map of Bangkok, he found that seven of them would cross at a point near the Royal Palace, necessitating structures 108 feet tall.

Anxious about damage to tourism, the Chatichai administration also refused to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic. As many as half a million Thais are now HIV-positive, and by the year 2000, unless government programs are effective, the number will rise to somewhere between two and four million, half of them women. Half of Thai men don’t use condoms, and 95 percent of those over twenty-one have slept with a prostitute. Surveys of brothels show an overall HIV infection rate of 22 percent, rising as high as 72 percent in Chiang Mai, the largest city in the North. With a per-capita public-health expenditure of twenty-five dollars, the Thai government says it can only treat four hundred AIDS patients a year.

The rampant corruption and widespread feeling that Thailand’s problems were spinning out of control helps explain why a February 23, 1991, coup against Chatichai drew little opposition. General Suchinda Kraprayoon managed to take control of the government in broad daylight, without a shot being fired or a tank in the streets. Shoppers jammed the stores in Bangkok as usual, and the only arrests consisted of fifteen students gathered for a protest rally.

To many, Suchinda’s coup against Chatichai represented not so much the military overthrow of a democratic government as two political factions competing for spoils. “When those guys in green staged their coup in February 1991, they weren’t overthrowing democracy,” said the Western military officer. “They were overthrowing a competing business system.”

The change of government, as one senior Western diplomat put it at the time, “merely changes the direction of the flow of the money. . . . [Before the coup] the politicians were getting a lot more of it and the military was getting a lot less.”

An intelligent and urbane man, General Suchinda had headed a Thai contingent in the Vietnam War and served as assistant Thai defense attache in Washington. As the top graduate from Chulachomklao Military Academy in 1958, he was the leader of Class Five, the fifth class to graduate since the academy reorganized along the lines of West Point. In Thailand, loyalty to friends and family is paramount, and the members of Class Five stuck tightly together. Largely because of Suchinda’s skill, they have succeeded more than any other class in filling top positions and–the supreme mark of success in the Thai military–participating in profitable business deals. By the time of Suchinda’s coup, at least 62 of the 138 Class Five graduates held the rank of general.

These generals are part of an armed forces hierarchy designed specifically to fatten wallets rather than to defend the country. Tai Ming Cheung, a journalist who reports on defense, recently wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review that “while there are, on average, between 3,000 and 4,000 enlisted soldiers for each general in Western armies, the Thai army has one general for every 300 to 350 troops. More than 600 generals have offices in the army and supreme command headquarters in Bangkok, but one foreign military analyst estimates that only half of them hold identifiable military positions.

“The rest are generals without portfolios, who are described in promotion lists as being ‘attached to’ the high command. Foreign military attaches say they rarely meet these officers, probably because much of the generals’ time is spent furthering their business interests. . . . One officer who attended the Thai military staff college said that only two or three out of some three hundred captains and majors in his course lived on their salaries.”

Because the military decides what arms to purchase based on commissions rather than security needs, it has assembled a ragtag inventory of equipment from around the world. The officers get a standard commission of 15 percent to 20 percent. “As a result the Thais have got lots of things that are junk,” said the Western military officer. “In 1987 they bought 104 Stingray tanks from a U.S. company, a tank that the U.S. Army wouldn’t buy. Thailand is the only country in the world that has acquired this vehicle. No spare parts are available, and the tracks last just 150 miles.”

The military’s business involvements don’t stop with its arms purchases. Until this summer, military leaders controlled the boards of many state enterprises, letting them flounder while they squeezed commissions from military-linked suppliers. The creaky telephone network is a legacy of the military because chairmanship of the phone company is a perk reserved for the army commander-in-chief. Thai Airways International is now trying to regain the ground lost in the past few years by its incompetent and corrupt air force managers: erratic purchasing decisions have resulted in a fleet of fourteen different kinds of aircraft. Private companies also appoint military officers to their boards, blatantly exchanging salaries, gifts, and kickbacks for influence.

In 1990 the military adopted one of its most ambitious money-making programs, known by its Thai initials as Khor Chor Kor. The military planned to move a quarter of a million families in the Northeast from treeless lands in forest reserves to newly constructed military settlements. Then, in the name of “reforestation,” commercial firms would buy the land for eucalyptus plantations.

Near the Cambodian border, a Buddhist monk is organizing peasants to fight the military. Pointing to cassava fields where two years earlier the village of Nam Phut had stood, Phra Prajak Kutajitto described one of the evictions. “Hundreds of soldiers came with big trucks,” Phra Prajak said. “They pushed people’s houses down, put the farmers and their possessions in the trucks, and took them away. People were screaming and crying. Where they dropped them off, there was no shelter, and people had to sleep in the pouring rain. The army never gave them the new land they had been promised, so they had to depend on handouts. I brought them back here to plant cassava.” The military hasn’t returned, but Phra Prajak is now serving a jail sentence for forest encroachment and resistance to state authorities.

Not content to squeeze money from Thailand alone, the military extends its influence to neighboring countries. Until last summer, a trucking company controlled by Class Five associates had a government-granted monopoly on the transport of goods to and from Laos. On the Cambodian border, the military allows a thriving trade of gems, timber, and antiques from territory controlled by the Khmer Rouge, whose intransigence is making a mockery of that country’s peace process and threatens to disrupt the elections scheduled for late May.

The extent to which Thailand has bankrolled the Khmer Rouge became clear in January, when the Far Eastern Economic Review printed the contents of a secret report prepared by the Thai National Intelligence Agency. The report revealed that the Khmer Rouge could earn more than $1 billion from Thai logging companies that harvest timber in Cambodia (including one company owned by the Thai government). Thailand’s claim that it has yielded to a United Nations boycott of the Khmer Rouge is less than convincing, as the Thai government refuses to allow the United Nations to enforce the ban on their side of the border, insisting that the Thai military–which has profited so handsomely from the environmental rape of Cambodia–can do the job itself. (This is the same military that in 1988 skimmed about $3.5 million from CIA covert assistance to Cambodian rebels.)

Thai military leaders consider their business connections more important than soldiering. “You can be a division commander on the Burmese border, but you’ve still got to spend four days a week in Bangkok,” said a longtime Bangkok diplomat who asked not to be identified. “You must play golf, check in with your patrons, see who’s up and who’s down. Even after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, we discovered the regimental commanders on the border weren’t around: they were back in Bangkok. It scared the daylights out of us.”

General Suchinda’s first major move after his overthrow of the Chatichai government brought him a chorus of praise. He appointed as interim prime minister a respected former diplomat, Anand Panyarachun, and he pledged to hold parliamentary elections in a year, after the writing of a new constitution. Anand, one of the few Thai leaders with no military connections, had spent twenty-three years in diplomatic service. With his upper-class origins, his Cambridge education, and his impeccable command of British English, he appears every inch the polished Anglophile aristocrat.

Despite military control, Anand presided over what some analysts have called the best government Thailand ever had. He pushed through economic liberalization measures, instituted a value-added tax, began the first serious work on the crises of AIDS and lack of infrastructure, and even stood up to the military by vetoing some arms purchases. “Anand got through Parliament two hundred laws in nine months, quite a feat compared to Chatichai, who had about seventeen in two years,” says Sumet Jumsai, a Bangkok architect who chaired a group of advisers to Chatichai on social and urban issues.

Why Suchinda should have appointed such a forceful, intelligent, independent figure as prime minister is an important question. Speculation revolves around two possibilities. First, the military had as much to lose as anyone if Thailand didn’t regain the confidence of international investors, who prize stability. Second, Suchinda might have been trying to head off criticism as a boost to his own secret plans to become prime minister.

Suchinda appointed a Parliament with a majority of current and retired military officers and named Class Five graduates or their allies to every key position in the armed forces. And despite Anand’s attempts to intercede, the junta produced a new constitution that gave it the power to appoint the upper house of Parliament, which in turn could vote to dismiss a government. This constitution also allowed the prime minister to be someone other than an elected member of Parliament.

Suchinda repeatedly assured the nation that he had no interest in becoming prime minister. “My political philosophy is never to become involved in politics–always, unconditionally, period,” he said in November 1991. Meanwhile, the political parties allied with the junta prepared for the March 1992 parliamentary election with their usual campaign of vote buying and strong-arm tactics in rural areas, which account for three-quarters of the population.

As expected, the parties allied with the junta dominated the rural voting, winning a majority of seats in Parliament and thereby gaining the right to name the next prime minister. But the big surprise of the election occurred in Bangkok, where voters decisively split from the rest of the country.

Bangkok voters gave thirty-two of their thirty-five parliamentary seats to the party of Chamlong Srimuang, an ascetic ex-general who had served as governor of Bangkok since 1985. Displaying the unusual traits of hard work and dedication, Chamlong had risen to the rank of general in the army, even though as a cadet he’d been disciplined for criticizing mismanagement and corruption.

Chamlong practices sexual abstinence, eats one meal a day, drinks only water, and sleeps on a thin mat, in accordance with the precepts of the controversial Buddhist sect he belongs to. “I want to reduce my desire little by little,” Chamlong said. “To eat less, spend less, work harder, donate what I save to the public. This is the way we can end corruption; if everyone followed this philosophy, no one could be corrupt. I told the people I’m going to do this until the end of my life.”

Chamlong does have his share of critics. “Chamlong as governor never listened to anyone,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand’s leading dissident. “In the media he’s humble, simple living, get up at four in the morning and wash dishes himself–it is a wonderful image. Only on the inside would you know how dictatorial he was.” But most Bangkokians were enamored of Chamlong, the Mr. Clean who donated his salary back to the people and swept the city of corruption.

Chamlong’s reputation for uncompromising honesty made him a powerful leader of those pressing for democracy, but the military still might have prevailed if Suchinda had not launched a transparent plot to become prime minister.

On March 25, 1992, the parliamentary majority named as prime minister a wealthy businessman and politician from northern Thailand. Within hours the U.S. State Department announced suspicions that he was involved in drug trafficking.

Suchinda immediately offered to save his country’s reputation by taking the job himself. On April 7, saying, “I have sacrificed myself for this matter,” Suchinda announced he would resign his military post and become prime minister. To make matters worse, he included in his cabinet three ministers from the former Chatichai administration whom his own investigating panel had found to be “unusually rich”–in other words, corrupt.

“People were upset not because the army was powerful, but because we began to feel we had no options,” said Ammar Siamwalla of the Thailand Development Research Institute. “There was a contemptuous tone in the way [Suchinda] talked: ‘Look, I’ve got the power; you don’t screw around with me.'”

Although Thailand’s growing middle class and its aggressive, forward- looking business community had been finding military control increasingly oppressive, it was Suchinda’s apparent contempt rather than a sudden yearning for democracy that made demonstrators take to the streets of Bangkok in April and early May.

On May 4 Chamlong, who has a flair for the dramatic, told a rally of forty thousand protesters that he would go on a hunger strike until Suchinda stepped down. His audience was moved, and their faith wasn’t shaken when five days later Chamlong told another rally that he would start eating again, because he had been persuaded that he could contribute more through leadership than death.

On May 17, when it became clear that Suchinda would make no concession, Chamlong addressed an estimated two hundred thousand people. Calling for Suchinda’s resignation, Chamlong urged the protesters to march to the prime minister’s office about a mile away.

Halfway along the route, police stopped the marchers with barbed-wire barricades and sprayed them with fetid water from a nearby canal. The confrontations escalated, and the following afternoon Chamlong and other demonstrators were lying on the street to avoid a hail of bullets. In an act as courageous as it was dramatic, Chamlong stood up and shouted at the approaching soldiers: “Major General Chamlong Srimuang is here! Don’t shoot the people!” Chamlong was dragged away in handcuffs, and his words went unheeded–at least fifty-two people died in the next three days.

This conflict differed from anything Thailand had previously seen. The bulk of the demonstrators were business people, the emerging middle class, and low-income workers. The protesters were nicknamed “the yuppie brigade” and “the mobile phone mob” because of the vital communication role played by cellular phones. The Far Eastern Economic Review reported that one of the men trying to shield Chamlong from the soldiers “was the scion of a sugar-refining dynasty. The next day, a property developer called his banker to ask where he could buy guns.”

Many protesters were military opponents rather than democracy advocates; they felt that the armed forces not only controlled the levers of government and had horned in on business, but that Suchinda’s power grab threatened the economic stability of Thailand itself. The students who had spearheaded previous Thai protests were less conspicuous this time. “The current generation of students has been bought off by economic success,” said a leading academic.

The other factor distinguishing these protests was the extraordinary brutality with which the military reacted. Instead of tear gas or rubber bullets, officers passed out live ammunition. Class Five leaders, not trusting the loyalty of the Bangkok-based soldiers, brought in their own troops from the Burmese and Cambodian borders.

Dr. Weng Tojirakara, a dermatologist and one of the leaders of the Confederation for Democracy, recalled the events of the May massacre: “On Sunday night and Monday morning I stood on the roof of a Volkswagen van. We told people to speak to the soldiers politely, to tell them, ‘We are Thai people; we are not the enemy; we have no weapons.’ Every time the soldiers stopped shooting, people brought them food and water and put flowers into their guns. But the commanders knew their psychology. They changed the soldiers every three hours. They told the new troops they were fighting Communists, those who burn down buildings, who loot, who are against Buddhism.”

According to several accounts, plainclothes provocateurs from the military and police, attempting to spur the soldiers into action, smashed government vehicles, set fire to buses, and burned down buildings.

As army sharpshooters stood on rooftops picking off protest leaders, soldiers rampaged through the streets brutalizing demonstrators. Doctors treating the injured were kicked and threatened; troops stormed the Royal Hotel, where protesters had taken shelter, and beat many of them with rifle butts in front of journalists and television cameras. Most of the dead and injured were shot from behind as they attempted to run away. Others were apparently executed. “I have in my desk autopsies of six people to confirm they were shot at point-blank range,” said a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Rumors swept Bangkok about the fate of more than two hundred missing people, including reports of mass graves and the dropping of bodies from helicopters along the Thai-Burmese border. For three days, as soldiers beat, arrested, and shot demonstrators, Thais had one question: Why doesn’t the king intercede?

Even in the Western press, articles about King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX of the Chakri dynasty, attach the word “revered” to his name so frequently that it is practically part of his title. The sixty- five-year-old king, born in America while his father was studying at Harvard, and educated in Switzerland, dedicates himself to projects benefiting Thailand’s impoverished rural population. A jazz buff and composer, Bhumibol appears to be a hard-working, modest man with little ego and scant interest in the trappings of monarchy.

“I’m impressed by his simplicity,” said Sumet Tantivejkul, who as head of the Royal Development Project Board sees the king frequently. “When I first met him, he was sitting on the floor the Thai way in a room with no chairs, with maps spread out in front of him. In eleven years, I’ve only seen him wear three or four trousers and sport coats. His watch is very cheap, not a Rolex, and he wears the cheapest sport shoes. He’s really happy when he goes to visit rural areas. He wears old trousers and a very old shirt, and he sits on the ground with the people, even in a muddy field. He drinks the water people give to him, water that I won’t touch.”

The modest behavior of the king is at odds with the status accorded the monarchy. When a member of the royal family goes anywhere by car, the police close down the road, even if it’s the expressway leading to the airport. Thais sink to the ground in the royal family’s presence and approach the king on hands and knees.

In several past crises, the king has wielded enormous power. In 1973 he supported the rebellious students who emerged victorious. In 1976 he backed a military coup that overthrew the civilian government, and in 1981 he gave refuge to a capable prime minister, General Prem Tinsulanonda, against a military coup that quickly collapsed. When the king finally acted to end the May massacre after three days of silence, both the demonstrations and the military repression stopped almost as quickly as if he had turned off a switch.

In a striking departure from the past, when the king had worked only behind the scenes, Thais saw an extraordinary televised event: Suchinda and Chamlong–the latter taken from prison and wearing his usual blue farmer’s shirt–crawling into a room of the Royal Palace on their hands and knees to be lectured by the king. “We are fighting in our own house,” Bhumibol told them. “It’s useless to live on burned ruins. . . . I ask you not to confront each other, but to work together to end the current violence.”

No one knows why the king waited three days to act. Because he had no legal power to intervene, he may have been waiting until he was sure he could win. Much speculation has centered on the role played by the king’s most influential adviser, General Prem, the former army commander-in-chief and prime minister to whom the king had given refuge in 1981. Rumor had it that Prem put together enough dissident troops to force Suchinda to yield to the king.

Suchinda emerged from the May massacre so discredited that he clearly had to step down as prime minister. But before resigning May 24, he granted himself and other government officials amnesty through a decree signed by the king, probably as part of a deal under which he would exit voluntarily. The next day, pro-military parties in Parliament passed the reforms demonstrators had demanded, curtailing the power of the military-appointed Senate and specifying that future prime ministers would have to be elected members of Parliament.

On May 28 the military parties chose as the next prime minister Air Force Chief Marshal Somboon Rahong, the head of one of the military parties in Parliament and a close associate of Suchinda and his Class Five colleagues. Once more democracy in Thailand appeared doomed.

But although Parliament votes for a prime minister, the appointment isn’t official until the Speaker of the House submits a name for the king’s approval. Somboon, who said that palace officials had twice confirmed that the king would approve his nomination, threw a party at his house for the June 10 announcement, complete with a buffet table for three hundred guests, huge bouquets of flowers, and glossy brochures extolling his career.

Guests crowded around Somboon as he took the call from the Speaker of the House. But the speaker dropped a bombshell: the name on the king’s decree for prime minister was not Somboon but Anand Panyarachun, the white knight who had governed so skillfully following Suchinda’s 1991 coup. As an ashen Somboon hung up the phone, someone shouted, “Anand is it,” and journalists at the party burst into cheers. The irony– that Somboon was an elected member of Parliament, a key demand of democracy demonstrators, while Anand was not–was lost on a celebrating nation.

“It’s clear [the Speaker of the House] didn’t do this by himself,” said David Wyatt, a Thailand specialist at Cornell University, “and I think it would be uncharacteristic for the king to do it on his own.” Again, speculation focused on the behind-the-scenes role of General Prem, who was known to have met with the speaker before the announcement.

Anand said he didn’t know what had happened either. “[The speaker] called me the night before,” Anand said. “He simply said to me he didn’t like the consequences of his selection [of Somboon]. I tried to discourage him, but he said at the moment he had no alternative but to submit my name.”