Rule of Law and the Patronage System: Where are you going? Who are you going to see?

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Last time I was pulled over at the elevated highway tollbooth on my way to Chon Buri province outside of Bangkok, I was asked two questions: where was I going and who was I going to see? First he checked the make, model and age of my car. And the important scan of the windscreen to see if the necessary stickers have expired. Also, the windscreen will display—for the well-connected—a status signal: it might be military, police, an elite club, etc. Decals, small bronze fender icons, and other artistic displays of power connections are important visual cues as to the relationship of power to the person seated behind the wheel. These details are digested at the point of contact with the police officer who wants to know whom he’s dealing with before getting to the issue of law.

In a patronage culture those are two quite sensible questions to ask. I will hear foreigners talking about Thailand not having laws. That isn’t true. Thailand has many laws and regulations. The issue is how to square law enforcement with the patronage system. At its heart, patronage works to provide an umbrella of protection to those who need to shade from the bright lights of laws and regulations.

Politicians are fond of saying that the government supports the rule of law. It would be a pretty strange government that went on record as not being in favor of the rule of law. The question breaks down into two parts. What is the rule? And what is the law? The “rule” in a patronage system is complex. I was a law professor for ten years and I can’t ever remember giving a lecture on how you involve your patron in the legal process.

What I’ve learnt in a quarter of century living in Thailand, is there is an invisible process—invisible to foreigners that is—where off-stage exchanges are being made. At the same time, it’s not automatically a given that just because you are friends with an influential person that you will escape the consequence of your breach of a law or regulation. I told you it was complex.

Inside the patronage system many factors are processed: Did you damage the property or injure someone with status? Has your violation been picked up by the press and received wide spread public coverage? Were you caught red-handed and the video footage is in other hands beyond your influential person’s reach? The rule is your patron can help in many cases but not in every case. It is not a foolproof system in other words.

The second part of rule of law is the law itself. Some laws simply are immune from the intervention of patrons. Lèse majesté for example is one. Sexual crimes involving children is another one that most patrons wouldn’t try to fix. Killing and dismembering of your wife (or husband) is another. Bribery, violation of building codes, licenses, pollution, careless or recklessness whether in driving, construction of buildings, bridges, roads, discos or ammo dumps are places where inserting a powerful patron comes in handy.

People charged with assault, fraud, murder and rape—especially if the victim is a foreigner—are difficult to ‘fix’ but finding a compromise is sometimes found and the victim and his/her family accepts money as compensation. In the case of foreigners who are victims, the patronage system is less of an issue. Criminals without patrons have an advantage if the victim is a foreigner. Given the lengthy delays in the legal system a crime against a foreigner, especially a tourist, is not likely to go very far as the victim wants to return home. Hanging around for a couple of years to testify in court isn’t anyone’s idea of a happy holiday memory and except for the most serious crimes.

It is difficult to maintain a patronage system without corruption. You don’t want to roam around patron-free for years on end inside a patronage system. Holidays are fine. The free flow of money by the patron to those inside the system is the essence of influence at work. It distorts policy, influences outcomes, and favors the wealthy. It makes the legal system when it does arrest, try and convict someone appear repressive.

Recently in an ABAC poll, “According to the Poll director, Noppadol Kannikar, the survey was conducted among 3,971 persons in 28 provinces nationwide to determine their perspective whether they could accept corruption in the government. Results showed that Thais who can accept government corruption still remains high at 64 percent.”

I would offer the opinion that the reason such a high percentage of Thai “accept corruption” is that they “accept the patronage system.” It is their wild card when they get in trouble or need something from the system. It may be that like 40% of Americans believe they are in the top 10% of income earners, 64% of Thais may feel they are in the top percentage of people with the ‘get out of jail’ card. The thing with patronage is that it does trickle down, and does provide comfort to those against state authorities whose resources are primarily aimed at those who lack patrons. It would be hazardous to guess the percentage of Thais who would say, if asked, “Do you have a patron that you would go to and would help you if you were in trouble with the police?” I would suggest it would be a reasonably high percentage.

The patronage system isn’t just about avoiding the law. It also plays an important role in allocation of resources and benefits, including license and concessions. Patrons are powerful regional players. They have men with guns. They have blocks of voters. They accumulate wealth, hand out favors, show up with gifts at birthdays, weddings and funerals, all towards building and maintaining a power base. Patrons, unless they run afoul of someone even more powerful and influential, are difficult to dislodge.

Patronage is a system much older than democracy and courts. The problem with patronage is that it is difficult to modernize. As long as most people believe that corruption is acceptable, patrons can rest easy in their beds, knowing that tomorrow, they will continue to play an essential role determining the application of the rules, and providing shields to the less powerful as a way to signal there own authority which trumps the law. The patronage system is also the root cause of the ‘double’ standard or inequality of justice that many Thais complain about. That, of course, is the collateral damage of the patronage system. Corruption and double standards belch out of the patronage system like dark clouds of black smoke from one of the old city buses.

People rail against the pollution making buses. But as the ABAC poll reveals, railing against the consequence isn’t enough to make most people believe that corruption isn’t acceptable. They’d rather live with the fumes and feel that despite the damage to their nose and lungs they are safer riding inside the big black smoke then trying to out run the bus barreling straight towards them.

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Christopher G. Moore
3 comments on “Rule of Law and the Patronage System: Where are you going? Who are you going to see?
  1. This explains why I always tell my friends in BKK that I behave much better in Thailand than I do in my home country, the USA. The only get out of jail free card I possess is located back home, high on a closet shelf, inside a little used Monopoly game set. I doubt it would do me much good were I to be pulled aside in Thailand. On the other hand when the man in brown asks me who I am going to see I would quickly respond, Christopher G. Moore at, The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. That should be good for a quick wave of the hand and clear sky’s ahead … or a cavity search, depending on the tone of my voice.

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