Raise your hand if you have used, know someone who has or are familiar with the following negotiation tactic: “There’s nothing we can’t work out. What do you want? I’ll send my people to get it for you.” How about this one? “I’ll have a puu yai come talk to you. There’s a way. There are ways around the law.”
These are quotes from a leaked audio clip allegedly attributed to Premchai Karnasuta, the 63-year-old president of Italian-Thai Development, negotiating with wildlife authorities.
Premchai and three others were charged with six poaching-related crimes after they were caught at about 2am this past Monday in the Thungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. Authorities found two rifles, a double-barreled shotgun, various bullets, the body of a Kalij pheasant, a muntiacini deer carcass, a skinned and salted black leopard and a black panther skull in their camp.
In a land where everything can be negotiated, Premchai was looking for a way out of the predicament in a manner well-familiar to Thai society. He was banking on his connections in high places swooping down to save him, of which he should have many, being the owner of one of the largest construction companies in the country.
It is similar to how Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha is saving Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan over the luxury watch scandal. The junta leader simply invoked his dictatorial authority and told the media and the people to shut up about it. The National Anti-Corruption Commission is, of course, powerless to do anything. Gen. Prayuth said his deputy does not have to resign, and in fact, anyone involved in the junta regime never has to resign over anything. After all, they are a tribe, a network. They are brothers. This is a demonstration of loyalty as opposed to betrayal.
Obviously, Premchai has powerful friends who can make the whole scandal disappear, and if today was 20 years ago, Premchai would be smoking a cigar in his office, admiring the black panther skull that adorns his desk and wearing a jacket made of black leopard skin as I’m typing this commentary. But in the age of social media, while the high and mighty may still escape justice, it’s not as easy. Meanwhile, they cannot escape social scrutiny. Premchai’s friends in high places have to tread carefully.
Feudalistic baggage is the bane of many developing countries, Thailand included. What we have here is feudal-style problem solving. Invoking tribalism, appealing to powerful puu yai – bribe, negotiate and bully your way out of trouble. Basically, it’s the same way many of us get out of a traffic ticket, get our kids into privileged schools or cut through bureaucratic red tape. It is why we bring a basket of goodies to the local village head, kowtowing as if he was emperor of China, all smiles and howdy-do. It is why we keep name cards of some senior police officer, who we have met may be once, in the car, just in case we might get caught making an illegal U-turn.
In a feudalistic culture, we establish a network. We are brothers and sisters, connected. We have the puu yai looking out for us. When we get into trouble, we appeal to the tribal network.
Rule of law? What has that got to do with anything? Everything is sabaai sabaai, we can work it out. This attitude is not exclusive to the junta leader or the construction magnate, it is the norm of Thai culture. Though let’s be fair, it is presence in every culture, not unique to Thailand. But truth be told, it is much more prevalent in a country like Thailand when compared to countries that have managed to distance themselves from feudal pasts.
Often, our leaders, elected or unelected, are but the reflection of who we are as a society. Premchai and General Prayuth are just people. They come and they go. Eventually, we are all ashes to ashes, dust to dusts. But cultural values live on, pass down from generation to generation. There are wonderful things about the Thai culture, but we should also recognize the flaws in us. For society to progress, we need to learn that the rule of law trumps tribal relations, doesn’t matter if you are a prime minister, a tycoon or a taxi driver.