Military reform needed as sergeant faces retaliation for exposing corruption

An Army sergeant has spoken out after finding himself involved in military corruption and has received a questionable lengthy punishment for his pains. Military reform, civilian control and systematic external monitoring are needed to shed light on an uncomfortable truth within the Thai military.

Sgt Narongchai Intharakavi

In 2013, Sgt Narongchai Intharakawi of the Army Ordnance Materiel Rebuild Centre found his name and signature were being repeatedly used for reimbursement of allowances and project expenses, one of many corrupt tricks used in the Thai bureaucracy. He also found that he would be penalized by his superior if he refused to go along.

In 2017, he asked his superior not to involve him in the corruption. His request was met so but he was subject to continuous bullying in return. For example, his sick leave was not approved so that he was guilty of absence without leave, and he was confined to barracks for his first offence. He was later also blocked from promotion.

In 2019, Narongchai found his name being used again in a similar scheme when he was serving as a division clerk. He decided to file a petition with the Office of the Ombudsman. His superior, who also involved in the corruption, retaliated against him. 

In March 2019, Narongchai was investigated, jailed for 7 days and removed from his position in the division. The witnesses in the investigation were also involved in the corruption. 

Narongchai then appealed to the Royal Thai Army in the hope of receiving justice from the central command. Eventually, he received even more pressure from the superior. After the internal backlash he faced, he decided to go public.

The Narongchai case sheds light on systematic corruption in the Thai bureaucracy, especially within the military, which considered by many as a ‘black box’ where corruption is spoken of in rumours. It also underlines the sharp pressure for military and governance reform in this military-dominated developing country.

Long, costly struggle

  • On 5 Sep 2019 Narongchai filed a petition with the Ombudsman about corruption.
  • In Sep 2019 Narongchai came into conflict with his superior over the petition, according to Narongchai and the Army.
  • In Oct 2019 the division set up a committee to investigate. Narongchai was found guilty for violating the military code and sentenced to serve a prison term from 18 to 24 March.
  • On 24 Feb 2020 Narongchai filed an appeal with the Royal Thai Army (RTA) via Maj Gen Burin Thongprapai, Director of the Army's Judge Advocate General's Office and Col Winthai Suwaree, an Army spokesperson.
  • On 25 Feb 2020 a committee was established to investigate the document leak, not the corruption.
  • On 12 Mar 2020 Narongchai appealed against the corruption and his prison sentence through a direct complaints channel set up by RTA commander Gen Apirat Kongsompong.
  • On 13 Mar 2020 Narongchai asked his superior for forgiveness. He withdrew his appeal through the RTA direct complaints channel as he thought it would end the problem. However, his punishment remained as a result from the investigation committee decision. The event was recorded on video by other soldiers in the room.
  • On 16 Mar 2020 Narongchai contacted the Ombudsman to withdraw his appeal but later decided not to.
  • On 17 Mar 2020 Narongchai went back to work and found his prison sentence still stood. He then filed a petition with the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) asking for protection. This attempt was unsuccessful as of 11 June 2020.
  • On 18 Mar 2020 Narongchai fled from his post.
  • On 19 Mar 2020 Narongchai appealed again via the RTA direct complaints channel over his prison sentence. Another appeal was filed on 14 April.
  • On 24 Apr Narongchai submitted evidence to Veera Somkwamkid, Secretary-General of the People’s Anti-Corruption Network, a watchdog NGO.
  • On 27 Apr Narongchai and Veera submitted an appeal to the House Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights with evidence of the alleged corruption comprising fake travel permission and project approval documents with self-written invoices.
  • On 27 May the House Committee summoned the Army Commander to address Narongchai’s appeal. The Commander sent Lt Gen Sornchai Kanjanasoot, head of the Royal Thai Army Ordnance Department in his stead. The Committee later announced that Lt Gen Sornchai could not address nor answer questions on the issue.
  • On 28 May a video clip taken on 13 May 2019 was leaked on the internet. In the video, the superior says that even though he had forgiven Narongchai and given him another chance, if he kept on doing this, his military career would go nowhere. Narongchai claimed that there were words which he considered as a threat which are not shown in the video clip.
  • On 30 May It was widely reported that the RTA Commander had established a investigation committee in the Narongchai case and found that the allegations of corruption are well-grounded. The case would be submitted to the NACC after the RTA Commander approved. The committee did not find the allegations of threats and harassment grounded. Narongchai would be put on trial for deserting his post. 

(Sources: Thai Post, BBC Thai, Khaosod)

Narongchai’s hope for protection now lies solely on the NACC. His petition to the NACC was submitted under the Organic Act on the Prevention and Suppression of Corruption, which grants the NACC the power to protect those who expose corruption from reprisals in their career and through the courts. 

His plea to the NACC is still under consideration. On 9 June, Suthi Boonmee, Director of the Office of Investigation and Special Affairs, said that Narongchai’s petition is under consideration. The NACC spent the past 2 months collecting data and assessing risk (Thai PBS). Narongchai said on 5 June that if the NACC responded to his petition sooner, he would not lose his job.

Civilian control needed

Lt Gen Pongsakorn Rodchompoo, former Chair of the House Committee on National Security and former executive board member of the dissolved Future Forward Party, said that the Narongchai case and the 2020 February mass shooting in Nakhon Ratchasima stem from higher degree of patronage after the coup d’etat. Subordinates find it difficult to deal with internal pressure and eventually put their hopes on other means.

Lt Gen Pongsakorn Rodchompoo

In the long term, he suggests military reform which would involve many steps like having civilian control over the military, a merit-based promotion system and a limit to the positions that one officer can be appointed to. In the short term, he suggests having a civilian-appointed inspector accountable to parliament as an external check on the military.

“The US military has inspectors general who are appointed by Congress. Congress appoints them as inspectors. They inspect everything regarding military personnel. This is an example of external supervision. If people supervise each other internally, sometimes if the superior officer is good then it’s okay. But if the superior officer is a little defective, the subordinates will become corrupt.”

Pongsakorn also said that having a professional military instead of a conscript army will eliminate systematic corruption as soldiers will become bureaucrats where it is easier to file appeals and corruption is harder.

A public seminar was held after Narongchai's press briefing on 5 June (Left to right: Viroj Lakkana-adisorn, Fuadi Pitsuwan, Nattha Mahattana, Yingcheep Atchanont).

Yingcheep Atchanont, Manager of iLaw, a legal watchdog NGO, said that problems within the military have never been addressed thoroughly. One reason lies in military pressure upon whistleblowers. The military usually files defamation or Computer Crime charges and then calls for negotiations to find a common ground where the issue would be dropped and the case dismissed.

The iLaw Manager said the 2017 constitution that the junta administration claimed would be a ‘corruption killer’ is flawed as whistleblower protection under the 2018 NACC Act does not work as shown by Narongchai’s case.

Changes required to old-fashioned threats and discipline

Fuadi Pitsuwan, an academic from Oxford University, said that in the US, the Military Whistleblower Protection Act of 1988 allows military officers to file appeals directly to Members of Congress and Inspectors General. If Narongchai’s case will benefit Thai society in some way, he hopes that Thailand would at least implement such a law to allow soldiers to speak out.

Sgt Narongchai during the press briefing on 5 June.

Fuadi also said the Thai military has to adjust and prioritize new kinds of threat that are borderless and require more collaboration, like disease, refugees, global heating, cyber security and natural disasters. The military can do this by properly reallocating resources, be it budget or manpower, which will lead to another controversial systematic reform, conscription.

“The threats have changed. Should military duty still be limited to conscription? If I want to help the fire service or if I was to volunteer as a subdistrict public health volunteer, can I use that as a quota for national service the country instead of being conscripted?” asked Fuadi.

Viroj Lakkana-adisorn, an MP from the Move Forward Party said many appeal mechanisms in Thailand are used for allocating benefits among like-minded networks. The country lacks social welfare because many who want to expose corruption have to think twice as trials take a toll on their time, money and job security. 

Viroj suggests the law must protect whistleblowers to ensure the rule of law in society. He also calls for a revision for the 1933 Military Discipline Act, where many terms seem to be outdated and depend too much on interpretation, for example, "stubbornness", "not acting in accordance with traditional manners" and "not respecting seniors". The Act also allows disciplinary punishment involving the use of weapons.