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Phuket Opinion: Shine a little light

PHUKET: There is a growing movement that might finally see an organic end to mass corruption and raping of local government budgets: greater access to public information. However, the legislation that empowers this access to public information is itself prohibiting that movement, and questions need to be ask about overhauling the law that is now more than 25 years old.

By The Phuket News

Sunday 26 March 2023, 09:00AM

Ratsada Municipality this week held a small seminar for its officers to teach them their responsibilities under the Official Information Act 1997. The seminar, however, like many of those held for other local officials across the island, was focused on the aspects of officers ensuring that they do not reveal private information about individuals – which is now under much greater scrutiny by the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA), which became effective from June 1 last year.

What was not marked by the seminar was that the Official Information Act is also the legal instrument that allows public access to information held by local government agencies. The introduction of the Official Information Act in 1997 was a watershed moment for democratic rights in Thailand. Thailand was the first country in Asean to introduce a law allowing such access to information held by government agencies.

Under the Act, any information that any government office holds as part of performing its normal duties is deemed to be “public information” – with the exception of any information that is classified as “Official Secrets” (relating to national defence and the like).

The right to access to public information is also enshrined in the current Constitution, of which Section 41 notes: “A person and a community shall have the right to: (1) be informed and have access to public data or information in the possession of a State agency as provided by law; (2) present a petition to a State agency and be informed of the result of its consideration expeditiously; (3) take legal action against a State agency as a result of an act or omission of a government official, official or employee of the State agency”. 

Section 59 further notes: “The State shall disclose any public data or information in the possession of a State agency, which is not related to the security of the State or government confidentiality as provided by law, and shall ensure that the public can conveniently access such data or information.”

Now trying telling a local official that.

Under the Official Information Act, any person who considers that a state agency has failed to publish public information, failed to make the information available for public inspection, failed to comply with the Act, or delayed in performing its duties in providing the information “without reasonable cause” is entitled to lodge a complaint with the ‘Official Information Board’.

That’s it. Only if the Board agrees to investigate the complaint and actually orders the official will the information requested become public. There is nothing anyone can do to force an official to reveal what is supposed to be public information made accessible by Section 41 of the Constitution.

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The penalties under the Official Information Act itself deserve greater scrutiny: up to three months’ jail or a fine of up to B5,000, or both, for any official who fails to comply; but up to one year in jail or a fine of B20,000, or both for any person who fails to comply with the restriction of information limited by an official. The incongruence speaks for itself. The essence to protect officials, not to uphold public rights, is right there in black and white.

The latest breakthrough, however, has come from access to public information, but solely through public knowledge of procurement contracts. The Phuket Info Center (PIC), operated under the Phuket office of the Ministry of Interior, to its credit has been running a campaign highlighting the excesses of a B30 million tourism development project in Phang Nga, which the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) Region 8 office is now investigating.

Touting its role as “Honest, fair, professional, transparent, verifiable”, the NACC is now investigating a B6mn fountain right in front of the Phang Nga Government Administration Center (home of Phang Nga Provincial Hall) that stopped working after just three days due to a design fault whereby the water in the fountain basin fell lower than the pumps.

Also under investigation are three sculptures – of a crab, a lobster and a stingray – costing B350,000 each; tree saplings costing more than B6,000 per tree (37 trees, more than B200,000) along with two ‘honeycomb’ tree saplings, only four inches high, costing B40,197 for the pair; and eight plain concrete bench seats costing a stunning B57,896 each (total B463,168).

All of this has become public knowledge via anti-corruption ‘Watchdog.ACT’ (ปฏิบัติการหมาเฝ้าบ้าน), which has done well in bringing the extent of corruption to light. However, as with the NACC investigation into the Cherng Talay Municipality children’s playground, if the procurement rules have not been broken, there is nothing anyone can do to prevent the corruption from continuing.

What has been, and is still, missing is any focus on such projects in Phuket. Local government offices, through their plethora of public announcements for all sorts of events, including meetings to organise when to have a meeting to set a date for the actual meeting, do not include government details of government contracts signed. Of note, through an excellent ‘e-government’ initiative seemingly all government procurement contracts in the country are posted publicly at gprocurement.go.th. However, finding specific contracts is an overwhelming task. It’s almost as if the web portal is a way of being able to say the information was made public, while making it very difficult to locate and understand.

All local government offices have to do is post online the reports already created as part of the normal office duties. No extra reports need to be created. Making that compulsory will go a long way to encouraging trust among the public, and dampen at least the blatant forms of corruption still plaguing the country today.

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DeKaaskopp | 27 March 2023 - 19:08:21

@Kurt   Those expressions do have value. You just need to understand them. 

Kurt | 27 March 2023 - 15:51:22

Golf play expressions are not having any value to encourage Thai people and foreigners living here permanent to believe in dampen the blatant Phuket province Officialdom plaiguing corruption.

Pooliekev | 27 March 2023 - 12:13:30

@Maverick. Totally agree. Surely theres a basement at home where they could sit in their aged, crusty undies and moan to their hearts discontent. 

maverick | 27 March 2023 - 06:47:48

The whiners are out in force again - there is on old saying in golf circles “ you play the course as you find it not as you like it “ same can apply to choosing where to live perhaps folks who constantly whine about Thailand could think of looking for a new course may be good for their own mental health as well as others who have to listen to the constant carping - it’s NOT our country !

Kurt | 26 March 2023 - 10:35:45

This good PN Opinion shows how corrupt Government Officials are, not even hiding it, as it seems to be cultural sett. Examples in this article are just the tip of the iceberg. Still remember that many millions traffic light project at Chalong circle. Once it was completed they couldn't synchronise the lights for the 5 road approach. Lights removed.

christysweet | 26 March 2023 - 09:41:25

Look into the palms that line route 402 in Thalang, then look at the hundreds of expensive steel and brass street  signs  throughout Cherng-Telay, the wildly expensive and weird stadium lighitng in Koktanod soi 2 and route 4018... on and on 


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