Published on October 10, 2007
Give the man a break, one half of me thought. He never planned to stay long, and would be gone by December anyway. Why pick on him and risk a delay in the election?
That opinion is fast losing ground to my other half, which sees an opportunity that should be grabbed with both hands. I mean, if a military junta-installed prime minister was forced to leave office because of a past mistake - be it honest or otherwise - that can't be a bad thing for Thai politics, can it? Such a precedent could generate a long-lasting positive impact, perhaps better than three excellent constitutions put together.
Everyone would benefit. The junta would manage to tell the world: "See? Our prime minister has quit for practically leasing a plot of land that he was not supposed to lease. His democratically-elected predecessor had to be dragged away kicking and screaming despite owning a golf club built on temple land, illegally buying an auctioned-off state property while in office and evading income taxes."
Surayud would become a martyr. Thaksin Shinawatra could then really stop dreaming of a political return.
Of course, if Surayud resigned under these circumstances, finding a successor to him would be a nightmare. Locating a prime ministerial candidate who doesn't own a questionably obtained piece of land somewhere would be nearly impossible, like looking for a movie that started off with the ending.
But it's worth trying, because if we could, Thai politics would never be the same again.
A few interim Cabinet members have called it a day because of ethical questions raised against them, and this is a good sign. In fact, it's too good to be true, and one can't help wondering if the whole thing is a set-up to keep Thaksin in Manchester City's director's box for good.
Check out the potential money involved in the "conflicts of interest" charges levelled against those ministers. We would be able to set a new international ethical standard if we were able to keep it up.
The term "ethics" has been politicised and abused too much in Thailand - where, ironically, there are no real ethics in the first place. The bottom line is that Surayud would not have faced all these troublesome questions if he had simply fought off the "Everyone does it" temptation and turned his back on the Khao Yai Thiang land. In an interview, he admitted he had known it was a "borderline" (potentially ambiguous) piece of land. Bluntly put, he asked for it.
If Surayud believes he's a victim of a conspiracy, Thaksin must be laughing. Somehow "conspiracy" has become the most commonly used excuse among "ethical offenders".
There is no denying that everyone has something to hide, and if you look hard enough you can find fault in anyone, but a very effective barometer is: what would you say if your enemy did the same thing?
What if Thaksin had acquired the same plot of land? What if Abhisit Vejjajiva, when he served in a former Cabinet, had his wife buy state property at an auction while other prospective buyers stayed out of the bidding? What if Banharn Silapa-archa bought a TV station just days before a general election?
In some other countries, it's all about what is done; in Thailand, it's all about who does it.
Thaksin got away with the damning share concealment charges in 2001 because he had just won a landslide election and was poised to become prime minister. Surayud, facing strong allegations that he illegally acquired forest-reserve land, probably has managed to survive so far because he is the interim prime minister.
"Ethics" exposes hypocrisy in us, perhaps because ethics are something we don't really possess but expect others to have. Worse still, our standards waver like biased soccer fans. It's a "dive", thus "blatant cheating", if the opposition team commits it, but then it's "Tell me who never does that" if your favourite player goes down without being touched.
My better half thus tells me that condoning Surayud while condemning Thaksin, or vice versa, will get this country nowhere.
If Surayud's acquisition of land - bought, or technically "leased", in his wife's name - was wrong, then he should display unprecedented political courage and responsibility. He has indicated something like that, but his statement - "I will quit if it's proven illegal" - sounds a bit too like Thaksin for my liking.
Yes, finding a successor would be like searching for the Holy Grail. However, it shouldn't have been so if we hadn't bent our rules to suit ourselves in the first place.
The roller-coaster ride of Thai politics has arrived at another ironic phase, where Surayud may be able to prove his worth as a leader only by stepping aside.