6 June 2024

When Deputy House Speaker Padipat Suntiphada threw a barbecue party for Parliament cleaning staff in August, he obviously never thought he was breaking any laws or regulations.

However, the barbecue inadvertently fired up the ever-smoldering issue of corruption in Thailand. As a result, political officeholders appear to have become more careful about spending state funds, while taxpayers are more eager to see how their money is being spent.

On August 17, Padipat’s team distributed vouchers bearing his name to 370 cleaning staff at Parliament. The vouchers entitled them to a free meal worth 269 baht at a barbecue restaurant in Bangkok’s Bang Pho area the following evening.

“We paid for the meal with the deputy House speaker’s budget,” Padipat, a member of the opposition Fair party, declared when the scandal first erupted.

Both the Fair party and opposition leader Move Forward ran for election in May promising to bring reforms that would end rampant corruption in Thai politics and public life.

“Over the meal, we discussed various topics,” Padipat said of the barbecue.

He clearly believed that it was fine to use state funds for this purpose, convinced that chatting with the cleaning staff qualified as part of his duties.

He also lashed out at his critics, asking why it was fine to have a luxury meal with investors but not a simple meal with cleaners.

Honest mistake?

Yet, as soon as word spread that Padipat had thrown the barbecue, social media platform X (formerly Twitter) began jumping with critical comments. The top-trending hashtag was #ourtaxmoney.

Critics said Padipat was clearly using state funds to try to impress Parliament staff.

Several experts pointed out that his budget for receptions was only meant to be used for state purposes, not for whatever he deemed fit. The budget should only be spent on official events, such as hosting foreign diplomats on visits to Thailand, they said.

Activist Srisuwan Janya, aka Thailand’s master complainer, has lodged a complaint against Padipat with the National Anti-Corruption Commission. He claims that offering the free meal to cleaning staff could be considered a conflict of interest or an ethical violation.

“How can he use the state budget to boost his own reputation?” Srisuawan asked. “The budget should be used for the benefit of the state.”

Assoc Prof Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, a former Election Commissioner and incumbent director of Rangsit University’s Political and Development Research Center, said if Padipat wants to avoid legal trouble, he should foot the bill for the party himself.

“If he returns the money, he will not be held accountable,” the expert predicted.

He said if Padipat did not return the money used for the party, he risked facing investigation by several agencies and legal punishment.

Earlier this month, Padipat said he had now paid the barbecue bill of 99,530 baht out of his own pocket.

“Probes are ongoing, but I’ve already returned the money,” he said in a social media post.

According to Somchai, now that Padipat has returned the money, his initial action in using state funds may be seen as an advance payment that he later reimbursed.

United Thai Nation, a government coalition party, thanked people for scrutinizing Padipat’s use of state funds so closely that he ended up having to pay for the meal himself.

Low corruption awareness?

This so-called scandal appears to show that even the deputy house speaker does not know exactly where the line between dutiful behavior and corruption lies.

In 2022, Thailand scored just 36 out of 100 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. The low score landed Thailand a ranking of 101st out of 180 countries. The average score stood at 43.

Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. Corruption erodes trust, weakens democracy, hampers economic development and further exacerbates inequality, poverty, social division as well as the ongoing climate crisis, says the organization’s website.

Exposing corruption and holding the corrupt to account can only happen if citizens understand how corruption works and the systems that enable it, TI adds.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk