Sat, 01 Apr 2000

Minister's resignation shakes up Thai politics

By Stephen Collinson

BANGKOK (AFP): Political commentators on Thursday hailed the resignation of powerful interior minister Sanan Kachornprasart as a milestone in the struggle to cleanse Thai politics after decades of cronyism and shady dealing.

Sanan quit on Wednesday, a day after the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC) accused him of filing a false statement of his assets, in a shocking blow to the government ahead of general elections due before November.

If the Constitutional Court upholds the ruling next month, Sanan will be banned from holding political office for five years.

Commentators were united in proclaiming the resignation as a key step on the road to purging Thailand's young democracy of corruption.

The English-language The Nation daily said in a front page editorial that the departure of the Democrat party strongman proved "the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter," referring to efforts to drive corruption out of public life.

"Sanan Kachornprasart's downfall will go down in history as one of the most significant incidents that truly ushered in a new era of Thai politics," it said.

The NCCC ruling came a week after scores of candidates, including Sanan's wife, saw their victories in Senate polls rubbed out by the election commission on the grounds of vote fraud.

The proximity of the two verdicts convinced many observers the days when vote buying and corruption dominated Thai politics may be drawing to an end.

"Many politicians with secrets to hide, big or small, must be feeling chills down their spines," the Nation said. "Nothing will ever be the same."

Both rulings are being seen as proof that newly independent political watchdogs and a new anti-corruption constitution have the teeth to tackle shady politics.

The new "people's constitution" was promulgated in 1997 in an effort to make politics more democratic, transparent and less prone to corruption.

The Bangkok Post said the resignation of Sanan laid bare the "deep rot within the country's political machinery," which the constitution had been established to tackle.

"We are in a transition period, when the old guard is faced with the challenge of adjusting to the new demands for accountability, transparency, and credibility among people weary of seeing the country's interests subordinated to the personal purse of our elected leaders."

The paper warned Sanan would not be the last senior political figure to face censure over alleged corruption.

The Thai language Krungthep Turakij warned Sanan should be pursued until the whole truth of the affair is revealed.

"Taking action against Sanan until we find the truth will build confidence among Thai people over the new constitution, the NCCC and our political system," it commented.

Electoral misconduct and political corruption are just two areas Thailand must deal with in reforming the institutions of a state dominated for years by the strong hand of the army.

Officials admit privately institutionalized and informal corruption is a fact of life here and taints almost every sector of society from business to the police.

But just as corruption is ingrained in the national fabric, so is democracy which has for years stubbornly fought for survival.

Memories are still fresh here of the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets demanding civilian rule in 1992 after an army-led coup the year before.

Thailand is still regarded as a beacon of democratic governance, despite for decades being surrounded by the autocracies, military dictatorships and near anarchy of its neighbors.

Government spokesman Akapol Sorasuchart rejected opposition calls Thursday that a general election should be called after the scandal.

"This incident will not lead to a dissolution of parliament," he said.