“What counts as corruption?”
It is the defining question of Thai politics, emblazoned in a playful font on a concrete pillar in the parking lot of Thailand’s Anti-Corruption Museum. The Anti-Corruption Museum faces the exit of the Government House, where the Prime Minister sits, and it seems apt that such important officials should face this question daily.
Perhaps knowing this, the museum tries to make itself as nondescript as possible – a graying white façade, a closed gate, the questioning pillars lurking in the shadows of the building. In fact, when I arrived at 2PM on a Friday afternoon – within its advertised open hours – the museum was completely deserted, save one security guard.
Eventually, the lone security guard is convinced to let me in. On an extremely private, non-air conditioned and rather dark tour (he didn’t know where all the light switches were), I am surprised to find that the Museum is very well-curated. It brings in anywhere between two hundred or eight hundred visitors a day, the guard tells me, most from nearby universities or visiting officials from out of town.
The museum opens with a display on action taken by the anti-corruption networks, displayed in brightly lit bubbles: The Anti-Corruption Organization of Thailand, the Foundation for a Clean and Transparent Thailand, the Thai Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Change of Thailand’ project, the Federation of Thai Industries. Most are private sector initiatives helmed by large corporations. We are reminded that corruption can be appropriated as everyone’s enemy.
The large, adjacent sign reads: “Support the cause by being a citizen reporter who can expose corruption networks.” It is part of an interactive exhibit, where visitors can pose as journalists against a faux-TV backdrop. It seems remiss not to mention all those who were killed for exposing corruption: most recently, a Songkhla police investigator who was shot dead in front of his house for accusing his colleagues of abuse of authority and extortion.
Perhaps the most stunning part of the museum is its artwork. In a piece by painter Nantachai Jai-Aree titled “Urgent Project,” a dozen suit-clad men sit on an elaborate dining table before the Parliament House, carving up miniature trains, buildings and, as a centerpiece, the Democracy Monument. Other paintings also feature the Democracy Monument, alongside imagery of yak (Thai giants), kwai (water buffaloes) and stacks of Thai baht.
Despite its attractions, the fact that there is a museum dedicated to anti-corruption in Thailand seems profoundly ironic. Museums, per the Encyclopedia Britannica, are dedicated to preserving and interpreting primary evidence of a society’s cultural or political consciousness. But what is there to preserve? In Thailand, corruption is a present-day reality, made to mean everything and nothing. In announcing the bloodless coup of 1991 (which would give way to the intensely bloody Black May of 1992), Suchinda Kraipayoon declared: “The first reason [for the coup] is the corruption of the civilian government [of Chatichai Choonhavan].” In an echo of that declaration, Prayudh Chan O-Cha inaugurated the 2014 military coup by calling it the “war on corruption” against the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra. In a recent Thisrupt article, Voranai Vanijaka argues that corruption in Thailand is “not an exception, but a lifestyle.”
The museum formally reopened in 2015 but its genesis dates back to 1975 with the Counter Corruption Act, ostensibly because corruption was rampant “among politicians and government employees.” It makes sense, then, that its main wall display is centered around defining the “good politician” – one who can cleanse the system by, among other things, declaring their assets or instilling ethics in the private sector.
Concrete examples of such ‘good politicians’ are given in the next exhibit on virtuous individuals: luminaries such as Phanthat Norasingh and Phraya Pichai Dap Hak, who both insisted on their own executed to preserve the sanctity of the law, and Puey Ungpakorn, Prem Tinsulanond and Thanin Kraivichien. Less famed individuals are also included in this exhibit on virtue: five soldiers who helped a driver in a ditch, a child who saved his sister from getting hit by a car, an honest reporter who returns money to its owner. These people, we are told, are examples we must emulate on our path to a corruption-free society.
What the museum best communicates is a commonly held myth: that corruption is an individualized problem, to be solved by removing certain individuals and replacing them with better, more virtuous ones. This is the myth that has underpinned regime change time and again – it is the corruption of Yingluck, of Abhisit, of Thaksin, of Choonhavan that must be rooted out, and once these people are ousted, the system is on its way to being cleansed. Then, the “good politicians” can thrive, and so can a corruption-free society.
But defining corruption as the illegal actions of public officials is a significant divergence from how philosophers once understood it.
In one etymological study, the Greek root of the word corruption is traced to phthora, which combines two seemingly contradictory ideas: decay, and genesis. It was first used by Greek physicists to explain how the cosmos was generated, but Plato and Aristotle gave it political meaning. To Plato, the process of decay in politics was inevitable: just as the second law of thermodynamics reveals an inherent process of degradation through the inevitable transfer of energy in a closed system, so too was the degradation of political forms inevitable, from utopian aristocracy to timocracy to oligarchy to democracy to tyranny. In each corruption of the constitution of a given state was the genesis of its new form.
Many, including Aristotle, disagreed with Plato’s notion of inevitable political decay. But his original insight, tied to the word phthora, remains true: that corruption is a matter of systems, not people, and that is a constitutive feature of all politics.
Confucius took the opposite position to reach a similar conclusion: according to his philosophy, familial favoritism could be understood as a morally obligatory act. That this affects politics is not simply inevitable – it is virtuous. Decay and genesis go hand in hand, in both the natural and political world.
Corruption cannot merely be understood as the sum of individual actions. Describing it as a ‘lifestyle’, per Voranai, leaves things just as ambiguous, and also seems to imply that it is uniquely Thai. To recognize the fullness of corruption is to recognize it as a systemic phenomenon, ingrained in even the most utopian of political regimes. The Thai left calls for democracy, but democracy corrupts too: by becoming either unrepresentative of the majority, or illiberally allowing the majority’s interests to trump the rights of minorities. As philosopher Camila Vergara writes, “everything begins to corrupt the moment it is fully realized.”
Reframing corruption to recover the insights of the ancients helps us dispel the ghost that constantly haunts Thai politics. If corruption is accepted as a matter of politics, we can no longer blame it for Thailand’s political problems. We are then forced to more sharply define what is specific about our politics: the elite networks that underlie institutions of power (many of which fall beyond the remit of the public realm), or the Thai social norms that reinforce the flexible adaptation of rules and, subsequently, laws.
At the Museum’s exit, I notice a milky white plaque lit up in equally white lights: words from a Buddhist text, the Sappurisa-dhamma. It seems fitting that this reflection on corruption should end with the Buddha, who recognized the inherent corruptibility of the political world and proposed abstinence in its stead.
A corruption-free society should not, cannot, be the goal. But while it cannot be eliminated, keeping corruption at bay requires greater willingness to probe our problems deeply, without sweeping it under the catch-all term ‘corruption.’
Visit the Anti-Corruption Museum yourself, at Dusit Khet Dusit Bangkok 10300. Send them an email to make an appointment at firstname.lastname@example.org, unless you, too, want a non-airconditioned private tour. Their website is here