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General news >> Monday April 16, 2007

Virtue never can be bought

For a regime that promised transparency and accountability, the ruling Council for National Security (CNS) has showed little of either. Like a dentist pulling teeth, the media and citizens' groups have slowly been prying out details on some very questionable operations. Far from coming clean even when found out, the military has sought refuge in the cover-up. More troubling is its recent reflex of raw intimidation. Even the government has been used to issue threats to silence those who want authorities to live up to their six-month-old promise of openness.

The latest questionable project unearthed is a planned propaganda campaign against the deposed Thaksin Shinawatra regime. The documents first surfaced on a Thaksin-friendly website, but quickly were copied and under close scrutiny on Bangkok-based Internet chatrooms.

The CNS went through the tiring ritual of an embarrassed junta unable to keep its own secrets. First came denial; the papers were a forgery. Then came anger; someone must pay for stealing secret documents, and websites hosting discussions might have to be closed.

Then came PR management attempts; the papers were just normal routine for a new regime worried about a Thaksin comeback.

It now is clear that the documents, stolen or not, are authentic. They detail a shocking effort to secretly use 12 million baht to buy or rent some of the country's most influential voices in a partisan political campaign manipulated by the military. They claim to have lined up several leading politicians and academics to attack Thai Rak Thai and the Thaksin circle _ not out of conviction that it was best for the country, but for a share of the 12 million baht. One is torn between what is the sadder military claim: That influential voices can be bought, or that they can be bought so cheaply.

At the centre of the purloined papers is a familiar figure: CNS Assistant Army chief and CNS deputy secretary-general Saprang Kalayanamitr. Just over a month ago, Gen Saprang was on the front pages after his seven-million-baht European tour. Unsurprisingly, neither he, his superiors nor the military-appointed government have accounted for that trip. Now, Gen Saprang's younger brother Chianchuang has turned up as the head of the secret, 12-million-baht propaganda effort.

Secretariat director Gen Somjet Boonthanom, who keeps the CNS budget and signs the expense vouchers, says 12 million baht isn't much. He has a point that Mr Thaksin's populist policies cost more. Of course, a regime that has to purchase simulated support probably cannot survive for long anyhow.

But he is wrong in his claim: 12 million secret baht to purchase influence is a huge amount. And there is much about the overall plan that is still unknown, let alone the details. Leaked documents, for example, claim that the military felt it could buy off ''third parties including local and international media networks, both publicly and secretly''.

Perhaps they could, perhaps not.

The propaganda plan, now in tatters, was exposed and ridiculed in the exact media that the military planned to subvert. But while Thai newspapers and many websites have uncovered the basic plan, it should be noted that the CNS also was specifically targetting broadcast media as an outlet for their information campaign against Mr Thaksin and his cronies. That branch of media remains under military control that is tighter than at any time in the past 15 years.

Academics and the leading opposition parties who were supposedly to be the front men for the military propaganda also have been mostly silent in the wake of accusations that their opinions and influence were for sale, and for a low price at that.

CNS statements to the contrary, conceiving and launching this disinformation campaign was worse than stealing and publicising it.

The government and the military are expected to publicise their achievements, and to criticise opponents. The media and country would welcome any such information. It is unacceptable that the CNS would hire cronies and insiders with taxpayer money. But then, a virtuous regime would never have to resort to purchasing support.

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