TElltale reports have come out of neighbouring Southeast Asian nations in recent days that underline their respective situations regarding politics and the fight against corruption.
In Malaysia, a former prime minister was charged with massive graft. In Thailand, it was admitted that a high-profile corruption case that helped tear the country in two along ideological lines is expiring after a long and tumultuous decade.
Former Malaysian premier Najib Razak now faces 32 charges in connection with the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Prosecutors say he used his position to fatten the 1MDB fund between 2011 and 2014 while filtering at least $13.9 million into his personal bank accounts.
Former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, it’s been acknowledged, has been in self-exile overseas long enough to nullify any legal penalty from his conviction in the Ratchapisek land-purchase case in which he was found guilty in absentia 10 years ago.
The court ruled he had allowed his ex-wife Pojaman to buy a state-auctioned property and ordered him jailed for two years. By then he had already fled his homeland. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreangam now says that, as of October 21, Thaksin will no longer be liable to serve the sentence because the statute-of-limitations is expiring.
There are both glaring similarities and differences in the two affairs.
Najib and Thaksin were both accused of corruption, were subjected to massive street protests, vehemently proclaimed their innocence and insisted that the charges against them were part of conspiratorial plots.
Thaksin was widely regarded as a “champion of the poor”, while Najib was lauded for his anti-poverty efforts.
The voters ultimately ousted Najib, but Thaksin and those he chose as stand-ins in his absence won every election they contested. Photos have shown Najib, under arrest, enduring a humiliating legal process.
Thaksin, travelling freely, is pictured in posh shopping malls and at famous tourist landmarks. It took two military coups to take down Thaksin and his surrogates.
Najib fell in democratic polling. Hundreds of Thais, including many innocent bystanders, died in political violence, but the popular uprising against Najib was comparatively peaceful.
It is obvious which country is handling its graft problems better so far. It is also clear that neither Najib’s clout nor his failings have escalated into a destructive national divide as yet.
Like Thaksin, Najib was once recognised for his deft handling of the economy. But Thaksin irrevocably stained his legacy with an ill-considered “war on drugs” and brutal rights abuses in the South.
Najib, in contrast, lifted a ban on the opposition press and released prisoners held under an infamous security law.
Thaksin was highly popular and Najib was on his way to becoming a legend in Malaysian politics. Then grievous allegations of graft felled both of them. So Malaysia is far ahead of Thailand in its handling of political transparency, even if there is room for speculation about what might have transpired if Najib had won the May election and remained in power.
The jury is still out on Thailand’ future dealings with graft. Both men are portraying themselves as victims while their crimes or alleged crimes are being tackled differently.
Political transparency is, after all, a vague enough term, and fighting for it is a marathon, not a short-distance sprint.