Bangkok governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra is the latest to fall under the sword of Section 44. Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, as head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), issued an order suspending him from work without pay. The suspension is supposed to be temporary until further notice.
But since last year when the NCPO started issuing this type of order, six in total up to the present, civil servants, local politicians, teachers and various others have been removed or transferred from their positions without a clear timetable or procedure to ask for justice and reinstatement. The light for MR Sukhumbhand at the end of the tunnel is dim.
The NCPO cited various reasons for the use of the draconian order. In the case of Boonlert Buranupakorn, the mayor of Chiang Mai, it alleged he violated the referendum law — although many suspected it was a ploy to stop Mr Boonlert mustering votes against the draft charter. As for Premsak Piayura, mayor of Ban Phai, Khon Kaen, his removal was linked to his personal conduct.
But most of the cases were allegations of corruption and wrong-doing. The individuals suspended or transferred are under investigation by either the Office of the Auditor-General, Office of the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission, or Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The NCPO, with the desire to craft the image of being a corruption buster, took into its own hands a decision on the accused’s fate, without waiting for the normal justice process to run its course. Hidden agenda aside, Gen Prayut’s strong action received wide support from the public, according to various opinion polls.
MR Sukhumbhand’s list of alleged misconduct and malfeasance is long. In his first term as governor (2009-2013), the outstanding ones were the “dummy” CCTV instalments, the construction of the futsal arena, and collusion in the BTS skytrain contract. During his second term (2013-2017), among many were the procurement of musical instruments for BMA’s schools, the 39.5-million-baht “Bangkok Light of Happiness” New Year project, 16.5 million baht for the renovation of the governor’s office, and the purchase of small fire vehicles, 8 baht million each, 20 vehicles in all.
The governor’s aloof manner especially in handling the plight of city folk does not help his cause. The flooding of Bangkok continues to haunt him as the drainage system cannot handle the deluges even with the “giant tunnels” which MR Sukhumbhand presented as his crown project. But what made the public mad was his comments. For instance, if you want to avoid flooding, he said, “you should go live on the mountains”.
But MR Sukhumbhand is not a criminal or wicked by nature. He comes from a good family, of royalty. Educated at Oxford and Georgetown, he was an outstanding professor of political science and expert in international affairs at Chulalongkorn University. He then entered politics, ran unsuccessfully for office with the now defunct Nam Thai Party, which he helped found. He was more successful with the Democrats, becoming an MP for Bangkok and eventually deputy foreign minister.
The highlight of his days at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in 1999 when he negotiated with the God’s Army members who took over the Myanmar (then Burmese) embassy and volunteered to take the hostages’ place, until they were helicoptered out with him on board. Local media started to look to him as possible prime minister material.
However, with the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra and the Thai Rak Thai Party, the Democrats were not successful in national elections. All they could hold on to was the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) when Apirak Kosayodhin won in 2004. Mr Apirak’s second term (2008) was cut short as he was indicted in the fire truck corruption case. MR Sukhumbhand’s academic and clean image helped carry the day, beating Pheu Thai Party candidates twice in 2009 and 2013. In the last election he won with 1.2 million votes, the largest in the history of the governor’s race.
From the start, he didn’t look like the right man for the job. Unlike past governors such as Chamlong Srimuang who is a workaholic, Bhichit Rattakul who has passion, or Mr Apirak who has strong marketing skills, MR Sukhumbhand is the happy type, or suk niyom. He enjoys the good life (and good wine). He is not the hands-on type of manager required to run a city with 6 million registered residents, 12 million if seasonal and unregistered populations are included.
But the BMA is also not a college campus. It is a vast bureaucracy full of administrative mazes and labyrinths. Corruption is rampant. Procurement projects range from garbage collection to waste management systems, trees and plant maintenance, health care, public schools, managing streets vendors, and so on. Local elected city councillors enjoyed the perks and the non-elected district chiefs, the patronage. This is not a job for an ex-university professor. He could do very little.
The Democrat Party leadership now tries to distance itself from MR Sukhumbhand. Strangely, it is one of their own, ex-MP Wilas Chanpitak, who launched an attack with corruption allegations that led to the governor’s apparent downfall. Party politics dominated when they nominated MR Sukhumbhand years back; some argued it was to push him aside to the local level so he could not contest the party leadership at the national level.
MR Sukhumbhand became a target again last year when rumours spread that Suthep Thaugsuban, the ex-Democrat power broker, supported him to take the top job from Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Whatever the case, there should be no excuses. The Democrat Party and MR Sukhumbhand must be accountable for their days in the BMA. They must be scrutinised and investigated for all the allegations through a fair and transparent judicial process. And ultimately the party must face the music with the voters of Bangkok.
But that may not be the case. The intrigue is playing nicely into the NCPO’s hands. It reinforces the NCPO’s propaganda that politicians are corrupt and incompetent. The NCPO appointed a new Bangkok City Council in place of an elected one when the council’s term came to an end last year. All local elections nationwide are also frozen. Some elected ones carry on work by order of the NCPO, many are replaced. Essentially all became appointed and report to the central command of the NCPO. The governor of Bangkok is the last elected official, taken out by the coup-makers.
If allowed to continue, MR Sukhumbhand’s term as governor would run out in January next year. Under the BMA law, an election must be called within 60 days. But with the Section 44 effect, this may not be a certainty. It is hard to imagine the regime would allow an election in Bangkok given its need to maintain power ahead of the general election scheduled for the end of 2017 and beyond. This is because election campaigns with open political debates could reignite conflicts at the national level, especially against the NCPO itself.
The most likely excuse for the NCPO is that the national elections must be the start of a new era of “Thai” democracy. If MR Sukhumbhand is indicted, the rhetoric of reform before election will be a winning formula. A new Bangkok governor could be appointed under Section 44, like the provincial governors of the Ministry of Interior.
After all there was a precedent. The first elected Bangkok governor who assumed office in 1975 was removed two years later after the coup of Oct 6, 1976. Bangkok had four successive appointed governors before gubernatorial elections resumed in 1985. We love to hate MR Sukhumbhand, but the consequences of his fumbling have deeper implications on our nation’s return to democracy.
About the author
Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.