EDITORIAL: Lowlifes in lofty places

BANGKOK(The Nation/ANN) - Systemic corruption has been uncovered in state agencies whose job it is to care for needy citizens. Could it be any worse?

The investigation into suspected irregularities at state-run centres established to help the destitute has revealed more and more cases of funding misappropriation. An ongoing investigation by the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission has detected possible irregularities in at least 44 of Thailand’s 77 provinces. Funds have allegedly been misappropriated that were allocated to those centres as welfare payments for low-income families, the homeless and people living with HIV.
There are 76 such centres around the country, operating under the Department of Social Development and Welfare, which is part of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security. Together they received Bt123 million in welfare money for fiscal 2017 to be distributed to people in need. It remains unclear how much of this was embezzled.
This large-scale corruption evidently involved generations of officials, beginning when the agency was still known as the Department of Public Welfare under the Interior Ministry. A retired official familiar with the matter has said corrupt seniors involved in the network sent “trusted people” from Bangkok to the centres to collect their bosses’ share of the cash.
Had a university student-intern at one agency in the Northeast not exposed the scam, the officials involved could have kept it going indefinitely. The student claimed she was ordered to falsify the signatures and personal information of would-be aid recipients in agency documents. The cheating appears to have been systemic, with many officials involved, both senior and junior, and that the perpetrators had no fear of being caught. Given the fact that the crime spread across the country, at least some senior officials at the Ministry of Social Development must have known about it. This investigation has a long way to go yet.
Thai bureaucrats certainly are no strangers to corruption, but this massive welfare fraud takes the practice to an appalling new height. These officials were shamelessly stealing from the poor. They did not merely skim off the top portion of the available funds. They claimed grant money on behalf of eligible citizens, giving some of them a small share and others nothing at all (since the aid was requested without their knowledge anyway).
It is further alarming that photocopies of citizen ID cards were used without their consent in applying for welfare payments. This is of course common procedure among professional criminals, but here we have state officials flagrantly doing the same thing – authority figures who are entrusted to handle such official documents with care and respect for the law. With ready access to the state’s database on citizens’ private information, these corrupt officials were in a position to manipulate the data for personal gain.
It should be an honour to be appointed to the civil service. It should be an honour to have your abilities and virtues recognised to such an extent that the government is prepared to place the full trust of the public in your hands. Anyone involved in this awful enterprise has sacrificed all honour and ceded the right to be trusted. They are utterly without merit. Rather than serving citizens, they cheated the citizens most in need of help. Once convicted, they must be punished severely. They should be thrown out of government service and face criminal prosecution. And the bureaucracy, particularly the ministry, must urgently improve its audit systems to prevent any such corruption happening again on such a woeful scale.


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