Prof Dr Pasuk Phongpaichit researches the dark side of Thai society, sometimes at great personal risk

Doing research can be viewed as a form of adventure. Researchers take journeys into the unknown, learn new stories, encounter obstacles of various kinds and sometimes find themselves in dangerous situations before they uncover the intellectual treasure they were seeking and tell the world about it.

The research work of Prof Dr Pasuk Phongpaichit contains all the elements of that adventure. The emeritus professor of economics at Chulalongkorn University has produced many outstanding papers and books in varied fields including culture, economics, history and political history.

Among her well-known books in English are A History of Thailand and Thailand’s Boom and Bust. Her usual collaborator is her husband, Dr Chris Baker. The couple won the prestigious Fukuoka Grand Prize in 2017 for their multi-disciplinary and comprehensive analysis of the social changes Thailand has experienced since the period of rapid economic growth in the 1980s.

Ms Pasuk is widely known as the researcher who uncovers society’s dark side, covering subjects ranging from the underground lottery, gambling and the sex trade to narcotic drugs as well as other illegal economic activities that contribute to corruption.

Professor Dr. Pasuk Phongpaichit

“Before deciding to undertake a research project, I have to consider whether it will result in positive changes for society and how much it grips my interest,” she says.

And the professor’s interest is often gripped by issues that remain hidden from society at large. Prominent among them is Corruption and the Illegal Economy in the 1980s. Ms Pasuk was the lead author of that work, which she often cites as one that has generated significant social impact.

“My research for Corruption and Democracy in Thailand yielded information about payment for promotion, but society at that time was still rather uninformed about corruption, the underground lottery, or gambling dens,” says the economics professor. “That pricked my interest to learn about the process, system and structure of these activities.

“Before I did the research, I had several questions in mind. For example, how could anybody pay several million baht just to get promoted? Where did they get the money? It was not long after I started that I discovered information about the sources of the money.”

However, it was not all smooth sailing. The process of discovery was fraught with obstacles and dangers, including threats on researchers’ lives.

She relates one episode about trying to obtain information while she was researching the underground lottery with Assoc Prof Nualnoi Treerat and Prof Sungsidh Piriyarangsan as collaborators.

“We wanted to know how it was run. So we approached a crib-sheet runner in Khon Kaen Province. There were major bookmakers there who were supporters of many politicians,” she recalls.

It took quite a while and many local contacts before the source felt confident that he would not be put in jeopardy and agreed to talk to the researcher.

“At every interview, I would have someone accompanying me to ensure my safety and act as a witness to confirm the veracity of the information I put in my paper,” says Ms Pasuk.

In research of this nature, the professor aims to understand the structure, system and process of the subject matter, leaving out names of sources. Even so, readers sometimes were able to identify the unnamed sources, which could create complications for the researchers. Such was the case with research on illegal casinos conducted by Mr Sungsidh.

In interviews with a casino boss, Mr Sungsidh learned of his close connection with a high-ranking police officer. The casino was widely known by the public. In his research presentation, he mentioned the name of the casino. Following that revelation, a police officer filed a defamation complaint at 22 police stations in Bangkok.

As the lead researcher, Ms Pasuk felt responsible for Mr Sungsidh’s wellbeing. She would ensure that his whereabouts on any Friday were kept secret to prevent the police from taking him into custody. This was because if his interrogation by the police was not completed by the end of the day, Mr Sungsidh would have to spend the weekend in a police jail.

Lawyer friends of Ms Pasuk advised her team members not to travel alone and to avoid driving on expressways for fear they could be “disappeared” — a fate that sometimes befalls critics of influential people in Thailand.

“I was very scared,” she admits. “My husband called every day to ensure I was safe. We were worried about plainclothes officers showing up at our offices, inquiring about us or stalking schools where the children of some of us went.”

One time, the researchers received a fax with a picture of a bullet. The threat was clear. But their research drew great interest from the media, which was comforting to the scholars.

Intense discussions ensued after Corruption and Democracy in Thailand was released. People who were affected disputed its findings, but the researchers insisted on its veracity, pointing out that part of the information was provided by police officers who wished to see changes in society.

In the end, to avoid being harassed and entangled in court cases, the research team had to settle for a compromise and offer an apology to the complainants.

It was not a happy ending for the researchers. Nevertheless, Ms Pasuk believes that the team’s research played a significant role in helping to bring about social change in 1992.

Their research was conducted during 1991 and 1992 when Thailand was under military rule after a coup d’état, which was staged on the pretext of eradicating corruption.

But public discontent soon led to a mass protest against the military-dominated government. A violent crackdown against the protesters led to the government’s resignation and the subsequent drafting of a new constitution in 1997, which ushered in a new era of democracy.

The new constitution contained sections to keep in check corrupt practices by government officials and politicians. It contained mechanisms to allow public oversight of state officials’ performance of their duties, and a court to deal specifically with cases involving corruption by politicians.

“Society has changed and become more complex. It’s essential that someone collect and collate knowledge for public dissemination to bring about changes for the betterment of society,” says Ms Pasuk.

The role of universities, she adds, is to serve as sources of knowledge and innovative ideas to keep up with changes in the world and create positive changes in society.

Dr. Chris Baker and Professor Dr. Pasuk Phongpaichit

Prof Dr Pasuk Phongpaichit and Dr Chris Baker in 2017 won the Grand Prize in the Japan-based Fukuoka Prize awards. It is one of three prizes established by the Japanese city of Fukuoka to recognize “those who have made outstanding contributions to academia, arts and culture in Asia.”

Prof Dr Pasuk Phongpaichit won a 2017 outstanding research award from the Thailand Research Fund for her work titled “How fair are income taxes?”

This article was originally published in CU Around April 2018, Vol.61, Issue 4, Page 6, available at