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Friday, June 15, 2012

Saving the Thai status quo

Special to The Japan Times

KYOTO — There might not be tanks rolling on the streets of Bangkok, nor an emergency decree to restrict civil liberty, but on June 1, there was a coup in the Thai capital.

It was another kind of coup — not a military coup but a judicial coup. The Thai Constitutional Court issued an order halting debate over the reconciliation bill. After allowing petitions by the opposition, the Court argued that the bill may create a deeper rift in Thai society. It isn't the first time the Court has intervened in politics.

The reconciliation bill was drafted by the Pheu Thai led government. It mainly deals with the issue of amnesty, which, as the government sees, could lead the way out of the protracted crisis triggered following the ouster of Thaksin Shinawatra from the premiership in September 2006.

But the opposition condemned the fact that the bill would only benefit Thaksin, who has been sentenced to a two-year imprisonment in absentia for corruption. Thaksin is presently in self-exile.

Meanwhile, Pheu Thai "red shirt" supporters, also opposed the reconciliation bill over fears that it would hamper prosecutions linked to the bloodshed during their rallies in 2010. Almost 100 people, mostly civilians, died during their two-month protests in Bangkok that ended with a brutal crackdown by the army.

So far, no cases have been brought in connection with the violence, and Human Rights Watch in April warned that, if adopted, the bill would "undermine justice".

Just a month ago, Thaksin hinted during his phone-in session with the red shirts that he would be returning home soon, on his own terms. He also said that would be his last long-distance communication with his fans. His statement led many to believe that a deal must have been stuck between Thaksin and his enemies. They all seemed to give consent to the reconciliation bill, which includes a blanket amnesty that could free Thaksin from the corruption charge, and the military from charges of brutality in its crackdown against protesters.

Somehow the deal went horribly wrong in the Thai parliament. It appeared that Thaksin's enemies must have changed their mind at the last minute and could be behind the demonstration staged by the royalist "yellow shirt" People's Alliance for Democracy. PAD supporters camped outside the Thai parliament and demanded the dismissal of the bill. At the same time, inside Parliament, the main opposition Democrat Party played a spiteful political game over the timing of deliberations on the contentious bill.

Because of the overwhelming Pheu Thai majority, the bill would without a doubt receive a parliamentary approval. To derail the session, the Thai parliament was thrown into chaos as Democrat members of Parliament rushed the house speaker and to try to push him off the chair, forcing police to step in. After that, a female Democrat dragged his chair away while Pheu Thai opponents attempted to rescue the chair, generating a tug of war.

In the next day's session, the situation remained tense. One Democrat MP threw a pile of papers at the house speaker. Another Pheu Thai MP was strangled by a member of the Democrat Party while he was filming the angry rows in Parliament. The house speaker had to abruptly close the session.

Many government members insist it is the attorney general, not the Constitutional Court, who has the authority to admit petitions submitted by the Democrat Party. The Court decision stirred resentment among some Thais.

They are now collecting signatures to remove the entire nine members of the Court from their position.

The Court's intervention was perceived as yet another judicial coup. In 2008, the Court forced Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a pro-Thaksin figure, to step down on the absurd grounds that he was working as a celebrity chef while serving in office. A few months after Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, succeeded Samak, he too was ordered to resign after the Court ruled that a member of Somchai's party committed electoral fraud. The party had to be dissolved.

It is evident that the Thai Court has been highly politicized. It also appears that the Court is working to protect the political interests of the traditional elite. It has served as a useful weapon in undermining political enemies. In the game of electoral politics, the traditional elite realize that they are unable to compete with Thaksin and his proxies. In the past 10 years, the Shinawatras and their loyalists have dominated Thai politics, winning every election, the last one bringing Yingluck, Thaksin's youngest sister, to power.

Thus the only tactic is to rely on extra-constitutional elements to get rid of Thaksin and his political nominees. But staging another coup would be too devastating and the military would be condemned by the international community. It would also engender a huge impact on foreign investors' confidence in Thailand's economy, of which the Thai traditional elite possess a fairly large share.

It was the 2006 coup that gave birth to the anti-military red shirt movement in the first place.

The old elite are now turning to the royalist judges in defending their political interests. It shows the extent to which Thai politics is still very much manipulated by the old powers, whose only objective is to safeguard the political status quo, even at the expense of obstructing the democratization process.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University's Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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