FORMER finance minister Sommai Phasee has warned the new economic team that corruption among state officials remains endemic and needs to be seriously addressed.
Mr Sommai said the main reason he decided to join Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government was because he agreed with its sincere intention of tackling graft and tax reform.
“After nearly one year in government, what I could see was further problems in the public sector instead of issues being seriously addressed,” he said. “I realized that it can’t take just one or two ministers to do it but needs the whole cabinet in collaboration.
“During my term, no matter how hard we tried to clean the ‘grey’ area, instead of being whiter, there have been more new ‘colours’ in the public sector because Thailand’s graft issue has been deeply rooted in the country.”
To make headway will require the close cooperation of the entire cabinet, he said.
Even an elected government that could finish its four-year term would struggle to eliminate corruption, as the issue requires much longer to deal with.
Corrupt officials tend to focus on sectors with huge yearly budgets such as the energy industry, highway construction and other infrastructure.
“These can be called the basic industries that are major targets of those corrupt state officials and ministers,” Mr Sommai said. “If we take the issue seriously and want to make efficient moves, we should begin with their targeted areas first.
“We have to take it [graft issue]seriously. The current policymakers have tried to be stricter, but so far they are quite lax.”
In his brief time as finance minister, the first issue he addressed was fraudulent value-added tax claims that were costing the country billions of baht.
“We axed two high-ranking officials after we found evidence of their involvement in fraud,” Mr Sommai said.
Graft extended even to state banks: “We found cases of state officials involved in corruption at almost every bank.”
He urged the new minister to continue the mission of attacking fraud at state-backed financial institutions.
The last task Mr Sommai undertook before leaving the cabinet was signing documents concerning evidence that showed how state bank officials were deep in corruption during the past seven years.
Those documents have been submitted to the National Anti-Corruption Commission.
Mr. Sommai also mentioned the contentious land and buildings tax, which he insists is essential to the goal of eliminating disparity and unfairness in the tax system.
“In fact, the National Council for Peace and Order regarded the land and buildings tax as a key agenda item,” he said. “When Gen Prayut told me to stop, actually he asked me to stop talking about the issue with the press, but the premier did not want to shelve the tax.
“If he had asked me to give up this tax, I would have quit sooner. I wouldn’t have stayed until now.”
Government income accounts for 18-19% of GDP, compared with 30-50% in the US, Japan and developed countries in Europe.
“The country has earned too little income for spending on essential development,” Mr Sommai said. “It is not a time when we can enjoy export income as a major force of economic development, given the slowing global economy.”
He wants the new ministers to pursue an overhaul of the tax system and plug loopholes used for tax evasion.
“Law enforcement must be done transparently and strictly,” he said. “If you have to put someone in jail, you have to do it if you want to clean things up.”
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