Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport: The Unspoken Elephant in the Room: The Thai Monarchy, Corruption, and the Cursed Symbol of Thai Political Dysfunction
By Nate Thayer
May 23, 2014
The story might go something like:
So what is the fuss all about in Thailand?
Endless political instability created by a frenzy of factions competing for political power resulting in an anemic economy threatens to bring the country to its knees, but seems to be actively promoted by all political stripes in Thailand.
Why do these people all want to be leaders so badly? It often appears that specific issues of public policy are rarely focused on in favor of simple control over power.
In the hours after the military declared martial law Tuesday Airports of Thailand Chairman Sita Divari insisted that all airports would be business as usual in an attempt to reassure the vital tourist sector, which comprises 10% of the nation’s revenue. “All passengers will be informed of our normal operations,” he said.
Unfortunately that appears to be correct.
In the hours before the full throated coup d’état was declared Thursday, Sitti and the Airports of Thailand board of directors rammed through the “Airport City” commercial project priced at Bt18 billion and another Bt46 billion to expand the six national airports it runs, including Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi.
That is 1,964,864,000 US Dollars in public money contracts, long announced as expected to take months to finalize, which were whipped together in a frenzied afternoon.
It is the business as usual in Thailand that many would contend is the root of the endless national crisis. The lust for power without often what seems even a veneer of commitment to specific public policy issues, and fueled by corruption, is the real foe of Thai political stability.
At the core of Thailand’s systemic political woes is the metastasizing cancer of moneyed politics which corrupts and crosses all party and partisan lines.
Here is the unpleasant truth: If they were not using political offices for personal financial benefit in the stead of sound public policy, a distinct minority of all Thai political parties and their leaders wouldn’t be seeking political power at all–either via “elections”, focused on deposing those in current power, or to step in with troops and tanks to defend the interests of entrenched moneyed elites. And then do it all over again.
And the years’ long trajectory of escalating political crisis has been accompanied by a similar increase in levels of political corruption.
At the beginning of the 2000’s, government leaders were known to traditionally pocket about ten percent off the top of government awarded contracts. Then populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra assumed power, and that rose to 20%. When he was overthrown in the military Putsch in 2006 and fled into exile, the going percentages of funds meant for the public coffers siphoned off into private hands of the politically influential has gone up to 30% and 40%, or higher, according to many Thai political analysts.
In Thailand, the corruption isn’t limited to skimming money off the top of government contracts or a wink and a nod with an envelope of tea money–the entire financial system is manipulated and neglected.
But the dominant thread that connects the factions vying for political power in modern Thai political culture is that sound public policy plummets from the political agenda’s once power is attained.
Thursday’s coup has dealt another blow to the tourist industry, adding to six months of destabilizing street protests, airline cut back on flights, and declining tourist numbers. Tourist arrivals had already dipped nearly 6 percent in the first three months of the year in an industry that makes up about 10 percent of Thailand’s economy. The ebbing number of visitors contributed to a fall in gross domestic product in the first three months of the year.
The Tourism Council of Thailand vice president, Pornthip Hirunkate, said “The martial law will have some impact on tourists but this year is not a good year for tourism anyway because of the protracted unrest,” Pornthip said
And like a mascot to the political instability, stands the emblematic showcase of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport which has been a high profile monument to the central role of corruption and emblematic of the decay and decline of Thai stability.
The popular perception is the massive project was more of a personal money feeding station for those with political influence who could line up at the trough.
The Suvarnabhumi corruption and mismanagement saga has spanned nearly 40 years. It has featured in nearly every political crisis since the land was bought in the 1970s under right wing military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn through today.
The 8,400 acres, equal to Singapore, occupied by the airport was purchased in 1973, but the student-led protests on 14 October that led to hundreds slaughtered by the military that year and the overthrow of the military government, resulted in the project being effectively halted.
In 1996, the project was revived, but the collapse of the Thai currency in 1997 which spread through Asia nearly causing a global financial collapse, resulted in the construction halted for another six years.
In January 2002 it began under the newly elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra.
Prominent scandals and political deadlock were spotlighted at the glistening new airport during the entire Thaksin government.
Allegations over corruption related to procurement of x-ray security machines delayed the opening of the entire airport for a year.
The Democrat Party used it as a vehicle to attack then Prime Minister Thaksin, resulting in the ousting of the Transport Minister.
Pro Royalist and later Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, then and now leader of the opposition Democrat Party, accused the Thaksin government in 2004 of corruption in the awarding of another contract, costing the government THB 1 billion. The scandal was later shown to be largely manufactured by the opposition.
The following year, 2005, Thaksin government scheme to create Suvarnabhumi City, a special new political province in land surrounding the airport, was also mired in numerous corruption scandals. There were numerous allegations that land in the new province, covering the size of Singapore, was scooped up by politically connected investors. Had bought large plots of land in speculation. After Thaksin was ousted in the 2006 military coup, the entire project for Suvarnabhumi City was cancelled by the government which succeeded Thaksin.
Suvarnabhumi was ceremonially officially opened for limited domestic flights on September 15, 2006. Four days later, on September 19, 2006, the Thai Army staged a coup d’état against Thaksin and seized power. Nine days later, on 28 September 2006, the airport began international commercial flights for the first time since the project began 33 years earlier.
But even after ousting Thaksin, the Army used the Suvarnabhumi airport to level charges against the former Prime Minister of inferior construction as the centerpiece of justification for their military overthrow of the elected government.
The successful bidder to operate the airport car park was videotaped saying he paid USD $250 million to receive the parking lot contract to Yaowaret Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister and later elected Prime Minister herself and later retracted the allegation.
Then the coup leaders, which never substantiated the charges of airport malfeasance, delayed airport repairs which further exacerbated airport operations in an attempt to discredit the ousted Thaksin government.
And while paralyzed by allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and shoddy construction for years, not a single corruption charge has ever been entered in a court.
After the coup, accusations of shoddy construction including cracks on the new runway were made by coup leader Saprang Kalayanamitr to continue to justify the military putsch. The allegations forced the president of the political body that ran the airport–controlled by the air force–to resign and both the Directors of Suvarnabhumi Airport and AoT Commercial Operations were fired. The corruption allegations were later shown to be largely politically motivated and false.
A two-week investigation led by a Junta appointed chief engineer for Airports of Thailand, who first estimated the airport might need be closed for three years, found in fact the runway was safe and could be repaired in less than a day.
In 2006 and 2007 more accusations of shoddy construction plagued the airport. The Engineering Institute of Thailand sent a formal warning to AoT calling urgent the need to drain water from beneath the tarmac. “The AOT did nothing about the problem,” said the EIT. “The situation might not have become this bad if the water had been drained then.”
In 2007, the EIT again urged that trapped water be drained to halt more spread of runway cracks.
Summing up decades of contention surrounding the airport, the president of the Engineering Institute of Thailand said “Suvarnabhumi is like a patient in a coma who continues to suffer from severe bleeding. Stopping the blood flow now is more urgent and important than debating what caused the injury.”
The army allowed a new elected government to assume power in 2008.
But in November 2008, pro royalist mobs from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) used hijacked public buses to take control of the government’s provisional offices at next door Don Muang Airport, and then easily seized control of Suvarnabhumi International Airport. For weeks they held control over Thailand’s main gateway in and out of the country, trapping thousands of foreign tourists in the Kingdom.
The Royalist mobs blocked thousands of arriving and departing passengers in a bid to provoke street violence and force the just newly minted civilian government to step down. General Pathompong Kesornsuk, a close aid of Privy Council President Prem Tinsulanonda, appeared in full uniform at PAD protests and urged soldiers to join him.
The Army ignored government orders to evict them from Suvarnabhumi Airport. Instead, in response, then Army Chief Gen Anupong Paojinda suggested the government step down and holds fresh elections, and the protesters simultaneously disbanded. The Thai military runs the airports and quietly supported the protests.
Chulalongkorn University Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn remarked then: “Bangkok International Airport has now been closed by Fascist thugs,” Giles said.
The political tantrum made damaging international headlines and highlighted Thai government impotence to even keep one of their main gateways for revenue–tourism–free from self-sabotage. The thousands of pro Monarchy ‘Yellow shirts” trapped tens of thousands of tourists trying leave Thailand and an equal number scheduled to arrive.
But the more important issue that was behind most all the political turmoil in recent years, remained silenced by implicit fear and explicit threats.
The PAD shined a still unspoken spotlight on the real elephant in the room: the tenuous future of the once stabilizing role of the Thai Monarchy.
They dress in yellow, the royal color, and claim they are defending King Bhumibol Adulyadej and the monarchy against Thaksin and his allies.
While King Bhumibol has remained completely neutral, Queen Sirikit attended the cremation of a PAD loyalist killed in a protest and described her as a “good girl” and a “protector of the monarchy and the country.”
In October 2010, two hundred armed men occupied the airport for an hour, blocking the entrances and seizing ticket booths demanding tolls at gunpoint from motorists. Airport security personnel refused to intervene because of a dispute within the Parking Management Company, the firm contracted to run the parking facilities.
Meanwhile, with Thaksin in forced exile, in 2011 his sister, Yingluck, ran as the effective stand in and won the Prime Minister job. But earlier this month, on May 7, 2014, the Constitutional Court of Thailand found her guilty of charges of abuse of power and ordered Yingluck Shinawatra to step down.
But while the Thaksin loyalists and their pro monarchy military backed opponents represent a deep and seminal split in how power has been organized in Thailand and hold the keys to how that status quo will be altered in the near future, that divide has not factored into significant differences over the other elephant in the room: corruption.
No body views Thaksin as having led to a diminished role over the influence of money in political at the expense of the greater good. “Thaksin’s government, and now Yinglucks, is viewed by opponents as the most corrupt in Thailand’s history, ” Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Gregory Poling to the VOA.
Thailand’s corruption level has risen significantly, according to Brian LeBlanc of the Washington-based watchdog group Global Financial Integrity. “Thailand’s Illicit Financial Flows (IFF) to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio more than doubled over a decade, leaping from 3.9% in 2002 to 8.4% in 2011. This, compared to an average 4% gain for all developing countries during that period. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index reports that in 2012, Thailand ranked 88th on its scale of 177 nations. The 2013 index showed a drop to 102.
Corruption has only become more entrenched in Thai political culture.
Under the latest, now late, government now firmly on the run from another military dictatorship, business confidence slumped to its lowest levels in more than four years., the Federation of Thai Industries warned last February. They cited a decline in overall domestic orders, sales volumes, production output, and poor business performance, blaming the endless political crisis.
The World Bank said income disparities between Bangkok and the provinces need to be addressed to reduce inequalities and ease underlying political tensions. “If you want to resolve this political tension in the future, and at the same time help Thailand to grow inclusively, issues of inequality have to be resolved. Only if everyone in Thailand can participate in growth, it’s very difficult for Thailand to actually move up the value chain and become a high income country,” he stated.
And like a mascot to the political instability looming over Bangkok, stands the emblematic showcase of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport as a high profile monument to the central role of corruption and emblematic of the decay and decline of Thai stability.
In the hours before the military formally put their proverbial jack book, once again, on the neck of an emerging, sputtering Thai democracy, the symbolic Suvarnabhumi International Airport and the concrete poison of political corruption engaged in a sordid, symbolic gesture to usher out the old and usher in the same new–a portrait of some of the dominant unresolved issues that plague Thailand.
The frenzied awarding of last minute contracts amounting to 64 billion baht in public money by the Airport office of Thailand, headed by a former air force Squadron officer and former chief spokesman for then Prime Minister Thaksin, the airport “improvement” projects seemed like an apt act to exit the recent political past. But also likely perfectly representative of still unaddressed Thai political dysfunction showing that nothing much of change appears on the near horizon.