Sunday, December 2, 2007

'Go ahead, kill them. Just be sure to fill out your expense account.' Law and Order in Bangkok, Washington, and other Pre-Civilized Capitals.

A headline in the Bangkok Post (November 27, 2007) says that ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra "faces up to 26 years in jail" for corruption, while elsewhere in the paper it is reported that his party might well win the coming Thai elections.

If that happens and Thaksin's people win big, there is no way that he will be jailed. Indeed, it is far more likely that he will return from exile a hero.

It just goes to show that law, even criminal law, is ultimately political, and one test of a society's progress is how impartial it lets law be.

Rich, powerful countries like to claim they have achieved great impartiality, but that is true only to a certain extent, and, more importantly, only on certain matters.

As President Nixon, for example, learned, the US has many rules on cheating, and if he is caught breaking them even a powerful president can be brought down.

Just last week, the Texas oil man, Oscar Wyatt -- a donor and friend to many presidents -- was sentenced to prison because he made some illegal deals with Saddam Hussein. Kenneth Lay of Enron, once Bush's #1 donor, was convicted of corruption and died in disgrace. Another of America's biggest businessmen, Bernie Ebbers, is now doing a long corruption term, and Conrad Black, a buddy of Kissinger, Richard Perle, and other Washington powers, is facing a similar fate because he was convicted of stealing from his company's shareholders.

Rudolph Giuliani, one of the frontrunners for the US Republican nomination for president, is now getting flak because he reportedly used public money to visit his mistress.

The point is that in places like the United States rich and powerful people can face real constraints, but only on secondary matters like cheating and corruption, not on the biggest one: official murder.

US business people fall left and right if they're, say, caught backdating stock options, but have never yet faced prosecution for the murders of labor leaders at their foreign factories.

Fred Sherwood, then a leader of AMCHAM, the American Chamber of Commerce in Guatemala, told me in 1980 how he would call in the legendary killer, torturer, and rapist Col. German Chupina (then the national police chief of Guatemala) if any of the workers at his factory, Productos de Kenaf, got too aggressive in their unionism. Half a dozen such workers were assassinated. Sherwood said he had given Chupina their names. He then capped the story with a joke about archaeologists who were baffled by a mummy they'd found, but then they called in Col. Chupina, and "within an hour, the mummy talked!"

The transaction is usually more subtle than that, but MNCs routinely cut deals to do business in places where the security forces routinely murder dissidents, and -- lo and behold -- discover that a. they can attract good workers for very low wages, and b. occasionally some of their own workers get shot if they persistently ask for higher ones.

The fact that such killings happened in recent years at Coca-Cola in Colombia, for example, did nothing to damage the stellar reputation of major stockholder Warren Buffett, and its a safe bet that no one in Washington's Justice Department even thought of opening a case file, or asking their prosecutorial colleagues in Colombia to have a look at the matter themselves.

US overseas big business is seen as a quasi-extension of the US state, and when playing on foreign turf they essentially get an only somewhat weaker version of the same exemption US state officials get: a license to cause the death of foreign civilians in the course of official business without fearing that a police officer will come knocking on their own door.

If Giuliani becomes President, and, say, decides to bomb Mecca as a symbolic gesture (a move that one Republican candidate, Rep. Tom Tancredo, has actually suggested, if there's another terrorist attack on the US), he won't have to answer to a US judge for the civilian lives he'll take.

But if, Allah help him, Giuliani is ever caught, say, cheating on his taxes, he could find that US justice can be impartial, swift, and fair.