Monthly Archives: September 2011

Why is Corruption so Pervasive in Thailand? Could it be the Weather?

A recent article by Reason magazine’s award winning science correspondent, Ronald Baily, describes research that suggests that it could, in fact, be the weather.   He begins:

Greater wealth strongly correlates with property rights, the rule of law, education, the liberation of women, a free press, and social tolerance. The enduring puzzle for political scientists is how the social processes that produce freedom and wealth get started in the first place

Low levels of GDP do correlate with high levels of corruption, although there is a causality problem when arguing that corruption causes poverty or vice versa. But the two are obviously related.  The relationship between low levels of respect for the rule of law and high levels of corruption is almost self-evident; indeed one almost defines the other.  A free press, unencumbered by draconian defamation laws and other restrictions on speech, also challenges corruption. So why is a free press, social tolerance, the rule of law and transparency much stronger in some places than others?

Reason magazine’s article describes research suggesting that differences in the prevalence of disease explains, or at least help explains, this difference.  The article goes on to make a point about the relationship between disease and geography that is of particular relevance to Thailand:

It is well-known that disease prevalence falls the further one gets away from the equator. Hence it is not surprising, Thornhill and Fincher say, that the development of modern democratic institutions began in high-latitude Western Europe and North America.

The entire article should be read, but it is worth highlighting one observation that seems particularly germane to Thailand:

Their central idea is that ethnocentrism and out-group avoidance function as a kind of behavioral immune system. Just as individuals have immune systems that fight pathogens, groups of people evolve with local parasites and develop some resistance to them. People who are not members of one’s group may carry new diseases to which the group has not developed defenses. “Thus,” Thornhill and Fincher write, “xenophobia, as a defensive adaptation against parasites to which there is an absence of local adaptation, is expected to be most pronounced in regions of high parasite stress.”

Thailand’s geography cannot be changed.  Does that mean Thailand is cursed by geography to forever have a high level of corruption and suffer other serious social maladies? No.

Indeed, this theory of political development provides cause for optimism for Thailand.  The article observes:

In any event, as life expectancy across the globe has increased, liberal institutions have spread. The human rights group Freedom House reports that since 1972 the percentage of free countries has risen from 29 percent to 45 percent. During that same time, average global life expectancy has risen from 58 to 70 years.

Thailand has seen even more impressive improvements in life expectancy. The World Health Organization reports that in Bangkok, for example, females have an average life expectancy of 79.7 years while males have an average life expectancy of 75.6 years.  This would have been unimaginable several decades ago.  By other measures as well, Thailand has seen tremendous strides in eradicating or at least reducing debilitating tropical diseases.

Even if this biological theory of political development is true, the tremendous improvements in longevity and overall health Thailand has witnessed over the last several decades will not, in my view, guarantee a reduction in corruption.  It may help explain, in part, why Thailand has a serious corruption problem in the first place, but other changes are needed to eradicate this problem.  I would argue that its not just the change in “attitude” that politicians of all persuasions so often tout as the solution to this problem, but rather a fundamental change to protectionist policies and laws that grant unfettered discretion to officials to act as ‘gate keepers’ to protect Thailand from questionable threats.  There is also a relationship between (a) laws and policies intended to protect entrenched local interests; and (b) corruption. But that is fodder for another post.

A Challenge that Was Inevitable

But I was surprised to see it coming from Thailand.  The motion filed by the ex-TAT Governor, Ms. Juthamas Siriwan, and her daughter, Jittisopa Siriwan (both presumed innoncent), to dismiss a U.S. indictment against them, as reported in this PriceSanond news piece, evidences a reaction to efforts by U.S., and now other countries, to more strictly enforce anti-corruption laws.

As part of an overall effort to enforce anti-corruption laws, U.S. officials are pushing the legal envelope to charge foreign officials who are believed to be recipients of illegal payments in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) cases.  They are using the tools they have, even if somewhat limited, to curb the demand side of international corruption.

In recent years U.S. officials have aggressively pushed the supply side of international corruption on U.S. parties that pay bribes or don’t do enough – in the eyes of U.S. authorities – to curb the payment of illegal payments under the FCPA.  Fines have sky rocketed and people are – as the former head of FCPA enforcement at the Department of Justice (DOJ) said they should – going to jail.  It’s no longer “fun and games”.

Not surprisingly, the U.S. business community has pressed back, complaining that, among other things, the playing field is uneven because their competitors from other countries don’t face anything remotely similar to the FCPA’s tough enforcement regime.   It’s still early days, but other countries are now starting to enforce their anti-corruption laws.  I don’t see that trend reversing itself.

And what about the recipients of illegal payments?  In some cases, bribes are paid to gain an advantage over competitors, but in other cases they are simply paid because they are believed to be necessary to do any business at all (on the facts alleged, this case would not appear to fall within that category).   Not surprisingly, this generates tremendous resentment.  Businesses subject to strong foreign anti-corruption laws ask: why isn’t more being done to prosecute foreign officials that solicit and accept and, in some cases, demand bribes?

It’s a fair complaint and it resonates well not only with the U.S. business community, but with the international business community generally now that foreign anti-corruption laws are starting to show some teeth.  It doesn’t seem fair to punish the payer (supply side) when a foreign official receiving a bribe (demand side) escapes punishment.

Because of limits within the FCPA, it’s essentially impossible to employ that specific law against foreign officials.  So other measures are employed.  U.S. money laundering laws are pushed to their limits, raising the question: could this be a case of bad facts creating bad law?

Other measures are employed:

  • Immigration holds that prevent suspected corrupt foreign officials from entering the U.S.
  • Detaining and searching foreign business people when they pass through U.S. airports.
  • Extraditions from outside of the U.S.
  • A proposed law that would give U.S. companies handicapped by the corrupt practices of their foreign competitors with a civil remedy against those competitors.
  • Rule of law initiatives aimed at strengthening anti-corruption laws in countries where bribes are often paid.

The vast majority of people in countries where bribes are paid suffer the most from corruption.  They are the ones who are most damaged by corruption, although they sometimes don’t appreciate the role corruption plays in impoverishing their society. But that is changing too.  NGOs and more proactive journalists are helping to make the connection between corruption and the harm it causes.  When government officials spend millions, if not billions, on a product or project that doesn’t seem to do anything or is grossly over-priced, it often garners front page news now and questions about which government officials benefitted from the deal.

The pressure on the supply side will continue.  The U.S. may lose a few procedural skirmishes, but the trend to increase pressure on curbing the demand side of corruption will continue.  We may hear cries about ‘neo-colonialism’, but, in the end, those cries will be recognized for what they really are and fall on deaf ears.  Only a very few in countries with corruption problems benefit from corruption; the vast majority are victims.  They pay taxes that are siphoned off to vested interests or sometimes, when safety standards are compromised in an effort to make a profit, they pay with their lives.

It’s still early days – just like it was early days when the DOJ and U.S. SEC started to more aggressively enforce the FCPA in the U.S. in the mid part of the last decade – but we will see more pressure to curb the demand side in the form of enforcement actions and, perhaps, new laws to address gaps in existing laws.  We’ll also see press-back in response to these efforts to curb the demand side of corruption and plenty of skirmishes along the way.

NBTC Notification Restricting “Foreign Domination” – Some Context

It’s hard to see what sort of involvement by a foreigner in Thailand’s telecommunications sector is not up swept into the notification restricting “foreign domination” over Thailand’s telecommunications businesses recently issued by the acting National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC).  The NBTC’s notification goes far beyond the restrictions found in Thailand’s already expansive Foreign Business Act (FBA).

As reported in this PriceSanond News piece, the acting NBTC recently issued a notification restricting “foreign domination” over telecommunications businesses.  It was published in the Thai Government Gazette on 30 August 2011 and became effective the following day, 31 August.   The notification applies to all current holders of and applications for Type-2 (with network) and Type-3 licenses, meaning that it applies to companies that currently operate a business based on a permission, concession or contract with CAT or TOT. In other words, it applies to current participants in the telecommunications sector. The notification lists the following ten examples of what the NBTC claims is “foreign domination” of a telecommunications business:

1. direct or indirect share holding by foreigners or foreigners’ agents;

2. use of apparent agents (nominees);

3. holding of shares with special voting rights;

4. participating in appointing or having control over the board of directors or senior officers of the licensee;

5. a financial relationship such as having a corporate guarantee or a loan with a lower-than-market interest rate;

6. licensing or franchising;

7. management or procurement contracts;

8. joint investments (by a licensee and foreigners);

9. transactions involving transfer pricing; and

10, any other behavior which provides direct or indirect control to a foreigner over a licensee.

“…any other behavior…”  That catch-all phrase seems about as expansive as you can get.

So Why Issue this Notification Now?

Just a hunch, but the Thailand’s telecommunications sector is lucrative, and the competition has become fierce.  The relationship between Thailand’s second largest telecommunications carrier, DTAC, and its third largest telecommunication, True, has been particularly contentious.  And of course time is running out for this NTBC: new members are supposed to be appointed to the NBTC this Monday.

But first some more background:

In April of this year, DTAC challenged a deal between True and CAT Telecom public limited company (CAT) in Thailand’s Central Administrative Court.  CAT is a state-owned company that runs Thailand’s international telecommunications infrastructure, including its international gateways, satellite, and submarine cable networks connections.  CAT was formed out of a government agency and is often still thought of as a government agency.

At that time, the Bangkok Post reported that Somkiat Tangkitvanich, the vice-chairman of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), “said the deal amounted to a ‘pseudo-concession’ and should be investigated for compliance with the law.”

About two months later, in mid-June, “True Move…filed a criminal complaint against its bigger rival DTAC for having a foreign state enterprise as a major shareholder, which it claims is a violation of the Foreign Business Act”, reported the Bangkok Post.  The Bangkok Post went onto report: “True Move has no plan to file a complaint against Advanced Info Service even though the mobile market leader also has a complicated shareholding structure, said Athueck Asvanont, vice-chairman of parent True Corporation.”  Interesting.

And filing this criminal complaint, of course, had nothing to do with the complaint which DTAC earlier filed with the Central Administrative Court over what the TDRI’s Somkiat Tangkitvanich said amounted to a “pseudo-concession“.  The Bangkok Post reported in this same article that True’s Athueck “rebutted the claim that the petition represented retaliation against DTAC for filing a case with the Central Administrative Court seeking to scrap the contentious deal between CAT Telecom and True Corporation.”

Several weeks later, the Ministry of Commerce (MOC”) announced that DTAC appeared to be employing an illegal nominee structure in violation of the FBA. This development was summarized on this blog here.

Row Within MOC on FBA Claim Against DTAC

As blogged here and reported in the Bangkok Post, in early July, shortly after the elections but before a new government was formed and appointed new ministers, there was a row within the MOC itself about how to handle the matter.  The Bangkok Post provided this description of the row:

The head of the Business Development Department is challenging his boss’s order for the department to take legal action against DTAC on its nationality, saying the instruction is a “direct political intervention” and “illegitimate”.

The department, a unit under the Commerce Ministry, insisted on submitting its committee’s original findings to the police and ask them to determine whether the law had been broken, and if so, to take further action.

The move openly challenges Commerce Minister Alongkorn Ponlaboot, who had yesterday demanded that Banyong Limprayoonwong, director-general of the ministry’s Business Development Department, press the charge against DTAC. “He [Mr Alongkorn] has no authority or obligation under the Foreign Business Act (FBA) to force me to accuse a company of being foreign-owned,” Mr Banyong said.

“Mr Alongkorn’s decision cannot be regarded as a government policy. It is a direct political intervention,” Mr Banyong said

Shortly afterwards a new government was formed.  The old ministers were replaced with new ones.  And the FBA case appears to have drop off the radar (for now at least).

What about the NBTC and its Notification?

The NBTC which issued the notification restricting “foreign domination” in telecommunications businesses is also about to be replaced with new members. Its members were also appointed before the July elections.  The NBTC’s notification on “foreign domination” of telecommunications businesses was published just one week before new members are supposed to be appointed to the NBTC.  As expained here:

The Thai Senate is scheduled to select members of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) this Monday, 5 September 2011.  The current acting NBTC recently issued a controversial notification restricting “foreign domination” over telecommunications businesses shortly before the Senate was scheduled to select new members.  The Bangkok Post reports that the selection process has been “punctuated by fierce lobbying”.  If the Senate fails to select members of the NBTC by 11 September, the cabinet then appoints members to the NBTC, reports the Bangkok Post.

“Fierce lobbying” for seats on what would be a rather pedestrian regulatory body elsewhere?  The Senate has the first shot at appointing new members to the NBTC.  But if they are unable to do so by 11 September, the new Thai cabinet is supposed to make the appointments.

What this Means for Thailand: the Larger Picture

Leslie Lopez, a writer for the Straits Times Straits Times in Singapore, recently made the following observations:

Thailand’s manufacturing sector is one of the most robust in the region because of liberal foreign investment rules, and that in turn has made the country a regional hub for industries such as car manufacturing and electronics.

But the services sector is highly regulated in favour of local groups.

Thailand also ranks as one of the last countries in the region to fully deploy advanced wireless technology, largely because of the absence of a regulatory agency with the necessary clout to rein in the powerful state enterprises and push ahead with the licensing of new services.

As a result, the country continues to suffer from a lack of foreign investment in the sector.

***

“The setting up of the NBTC will get the reform process going. That is key,” says investment analyst Thitithep Nophaket, who covers the telco sector for Phatra Securities in Bangkok, referring to the new watchdog body.

Yes; setting up an NBTC that is not beholden to any business interest is important.  Eliminating or at least curbing laws that can be used to take out effective foreign competitors would also help.  Let’s see if it happens.