Until recently it was only the likes of tight-trousered godfather of soul, James Brown, and latex-short-wearing former English sprinter, Linford Christie, whose “lunchboxes” merited media attention. Well all that has changed as a team of lawyers in Thailand has gained entry to the exclusive group and brought about a whole new meaning to the term “packed lunch”
Three of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s lawyers were recently jailed for six months each after they were found guilty of attempting to bribe a court official with 2 million baht which had been stuffed inside a sealed lunch box.
Although only one lawyer actually passed the lunchbox to the court official, the court decided that the three worked as such a close-knit team that they were all equally implicated. The lawyer who actually handed over the money wasn’t in court on the day of the verdict and sentencing, citing a headache as his reason for absence – an understatement if ever there was one!
When the story first broke, it was reported that a lawyer who was working on a case involving a politician had handed the lunch box to a court official with directions that it was to be passed on to a specific judge. However, later versions of the story suggest that the court official was the intended recipient. This change in the version of events aided the defence of the lawyers who pointed out that a court official didn’t have enough authority to affect the outcome of a trial. Nevertheless, the three not-so-legal-eagles were found guilty of attempted bribery.
During the trial, which some creative local scribe dubbed “Pastrygate”, it emerged that the lawyer was alleged to have told the court official: “These days I have to come (to court) often and I feel sorry for the officials who work so hard, so I have something for you.” The official is said to have become suspicious (wouldn’t you if a lawyer displayed such an act of philanthropy?) and handed the box to a superior. It’s not clear whether this was done before or after he had opened the box.
Once the official and his superior realised what was in the box, it was returned to the lawyer – a rare victory in the fight against corruption although equally a wasted opportunity to garner tangible evidence and hit the secret benefactor financially. When the money was returned, the lawyer is claimed to have said that it was just an honest mistake. He had simply picked up the wrong box to give to the official. It would seem unlikely that anyone with honest motives would keep 2 million baht in a lunchbox but then extremely careless that they wouldn’t check the contents before giving it away in an act of trivial generosity.
It is rare, indeed, for someone to be jailed for corruption in Thailand. After each fresh exposure, buzzwords such as “graft busters” and “transparency” are usually bandied about with all the weight and longevity of confetti at a wedding. Corruption and contempt of law are so ingrained into the Thai psyche at every level that it is difficult to see any change in the near future. All too many Thai children learn to cheat in school and it’s a trait they never lose, from paying off traffic cops to evading paying billions of baht in taxes.
My first real experience of the power of corruption in Thailand happened several years ago when I was working as an English teacher. The school was on Silom Road, but I had to travel across town to Ratchadapisek Road to teach at a company four afternoons a week. This was before the underground, so it was a long ride either on a bus or in a taxi. On this occasion, I opted for the comfort of the taxi and as I was a smoker at the time, I decided to have one last burn before the trek across town. Rather than just idly standing around where I was, I set off walking along Silom Road as I smoked. Once the cigarette was finished, I threw the butt down a drain, crossed Rama IV Road, and was just turning to hail a taxi when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
The hand belonged to a tetsakit, which is a wannabe policeman whose sole responsibility is to extort bribes from foreigners for such heinous crimes as littering. He addressed me in broken English. “You throw cigarette. Come me. Pay money.” I played the dumb foreigner looking askance with shrugged shoulders and turned up palms. “You throw cigarette,” he repeated. His hand had moved from my shoulder to my arm, where his grip had tightened. I knew that there was no evidence because the cigarette had disappeared down a drain. “What cigarette? Where? Show me,” I countered, but he wasn’t giving up. He repeated his accusation and started to pull on my arm. There was a little tetsakit booth back across Rama IV Road and this was where he wanted to take me.
I knew I was in the wrong and wasn’t against being fined for my misdemeanour, but I knew any money I paid wasn’t going any further than the pocket of the man holding my arm. “Look, I’m late for a meeting,” I continued. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for this”. He wasn’t letting go, so I reluctantly let him lead me back to his booth. There was a second tetsakit keeping guard when we got there. He smiled at me like an old friend when he saw his partner’s prey. He was obviously the “good cop”.
They pointed at a poster in their booth – an illustration of a hand dropping litter with 2,000 baht written above it. “I’m not paying that,” I said smiling and shaking my head. They chatted briefly in Thai before the “bad cop” addressed me again in English. “Are you tourist?” I was wearing a shirt and tie. I looked at them and then at him. “No. I work here.” Another tetsakit huddle ensued after which the bad cop said, “OK. 1,000 baht.” The price was coming down but they still had a way to go before we could do business. Again, I refused, making sure to maintain a polite smile. This game has rules.
“What work you do?” asked bad cop. I told him I was a teacher. He again consulted with his partner in crime prevention before proposing 500 baht. Excellent! Even the tetsakit know how poor we teachers are!
“Listen, guys. I’m really late for this meeting. I have to go,” I said politely in English. I pulled out some notes from my back pocket and held out a one-hundred baht note in each hand. “OK?” I asked with a reassuring smile. “OK”, they agreed. They took the money and thanked me. We said our goodbyes in a civil manner, and I was on my way. There could be no animosity. This is just the way things work here.
I hailed a taxi and set off for Ratchadapisek Road. As usual, the taxi driver was from Isaan and I sat up front, taking the opportunity to practice my Thai with him. I started to tell him my tetsakit story and slowly managed to get my message across with the help of some sign language and gestures. As I finished the tale, I wanted to make a comment about corruption but I didn’t know the word. I asked what it was called in Thai when someone takes money and puts it in their back pocket while making sure to mime the surreptitious deceit of the act (English teachers are good at miming).
The taxi driver thought for a second and then said, “corr-up-TION” with a heavily-accented final rising tone. “No, no,” I said. That’s an English word, “corruption.” His pride appeared hurt and he went on the defensive, insisting that it was a Thai word and refusing to back down. We argued for a few minutes until I conceded. “OK, you can have it,” I relented. “You use it more than we do anyway.”
Paul Snowdon – June 26, 2008
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