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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

WILL THE DIET WORK?

The Thai charter takes graft off the menu


CAN WORDS ON PAPER wipe out entrenched political corruption? Thailand hopes they can. The new constitution promulgated last October takes direct aim at endemic graft. "The 1997 constitution not only changes the structure of the politics-business-society nexus which generated corruption, but also creates a totally new political system in which politicians and bureaucrats can no longer abuse state power or betray public trust for private gain as they could under previous constitutions," says Kramol Tongdhamachart, professor emeritus of Chulalongkorn University and former vice-president of the Constitution Drafting Assembly.

First, the constitution tries to eliminate politicians' incentive to be on the take. It reduces the cost of getting elected by splitting large, multiple-member constituencies into smaller, single-seat districts, and by providing for free television and radio air time. Parties that win a minimum number of popular votes also become eligible for government financial assistance, further liberating them from business funding, while the source of all other contributions must be made public.

Then, in case politicians still can't keep their hands out of the cookie jar, all office-holders, their spouses and minor children must submit statements recording their assets and liabilities to the National Counter-Corruption Commission whenever they assume and leave their positions. High-ranking bureaucrats are also subject to scrutiny. The constitution also makes the NCCC into an autonomous body with more staff, wider powers and stronger protections against political interference. It will investigate allegations of corruption and submit recommendations to the Senate for the removal from office of the individual in question, and to the Supreme Court for prosecution.

The new constitution has had some results - the asset lists of the outgoing Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and the incoming Chuan Leekpai administrations last November sparked much comment, particularly the vast sums held in the names of the wives of some members of Chavalit's cabinet. But the electoral reforms are untested. Laws on the formation of an Election Commission, the election of legislators and the organization of political parties still need to be passed. Parliament is expected to approve the laws by the end of May. Then it will be up to Chuan to decide when to go to the polls, though that is not likely until year-end at the earliest.

But the new constitution, no matter how well framed, is only words on paper. While its measures are not bad, they are untested, says Joaquin Bernas of Ateneo de Manila University, who helped write two Philippine constitutions. Moreover, they only touch on the public sector - and not the businessmen who buy politicians nor the public which sells its votes. Kramol agrees that society must learn to no longer tolerate the old, money-grubbing ways. "In the end," he says, "it is the people who must pressure the politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen to reform."

- By Jonathan Sprague, with reporting by Julian Gearing/Bangkok


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