Corruption Cases Could Sink Thai Government

Thailand's military-backed government, which endured weeks of chaos from tens of thousands of Red Shirt protesters in April and May, now faces possible collapse from possible court action because of corruption cases involving illegal campaign donations and raising the distinct possibility of a vacuum at the top of the country’s uneasy political pyramid.

The Democrat Party and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appear to be caught in the coils of laws passed in 2007 to keep the fugitive former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and top members of his political cabal out of office.

Abhisit , who took office in December of 2008 by what democracy advocates charge was a process rigged to perpetuate the Bangkok elite in power, said he hopes he and the Democrats will escape termination if found guilty by Thailand's powerful Constitutional Court, which received the corruption cases from aggressive prosecutors in the Office of the Attorney-General. Abhisit was not the party leader when the alleged violations took place.

"We will respect, and follow, the decision of the court," the soft-spoken prime minister said. The charges involve allegations of illegal donations worth more than US$8 million in 2005 from a major cement corporation, TPI Polene, to the Democrats, and other allegations that the party misused a grant worth about US$900,000 from the Election Commission's political development fund.

Illegal donations and the misuse of the commission's money violate the Political Party Act, which ironically was orchestrated in 2007 by the 2006 coup-installed junta to punish Thaksin and 100 of his party's executives. If found guilty in either case, the prime minister and other Democrat Party executives reportedly hope to convince the court to agree to a loophole based on the illegality of retroactive punishment – although they earlier advocated that retroactive punishment was permitted to get at Thaksin and his supporters.

When the alleged offences were committed by the Democrats in 2005, conviction for corruption by a political party's top executives, or the misuse of funds, could result in the party's liquidation under a 1998 Political Party Act. But in 2007, that punishment for both offenses was expanded to include banning the guilty political party's top executives from government office for five years.

The Democrat Party was expected to argue that any violations it may have committed in 2004 and 2005 should not be subject to the increased punishments, which came into effect in 2007.

If the current coalition government's Democrat Party is convicted in either case under the 1998 version of the act, and is dissolved, Abhisit and his top executives could, in theory, jump into a newly created political party and attempt to somehow stay in power. Parliamentarians could then make backroom deals to unite behind the new party, and either keep Abhisit as prime minister or replace him with an ally.

The Constitutional Court, however, has previously ruled twice that the 2007 Act was valid retroactively and dissolved two other political parties. If the Democrat Party is indeed dissolved, the toppled politicians may try to staff a newly invented party, using Democrat Party executives who were not in top slots when the alleged offenses occurred. One of those legally unsullied Democrat Party members, in a new party, could then possibly be slotted into the prime minister's chair.

A new party named Thai Khem Khaeng ("Strong Thailand") was registered on June 4, prompting

speculation in the Thai media that the Democrat Party was behind the move.

The court has scheduled August 9 as an initial hearing date in the case involving a misuse of funds, with the multi-million-dollar donation case expected to begin a few weeks later, in a separate trial.

The Attorney-General's prosecutors reportedly demanded the banning of about 40 Democrat Party executives for five years because they held power in 2004 and 2005 when the illegal donations were allegedly paid.

Abhisit, now 46, was a Democrat Party executive at that time, starting as deputy party leader in 2004, and as the party's leader from March 2005. But until Abhisit took over the Democrat Party in 2005, the leader was Banyat Bantadtan, who presided during both alleged violations.

"These dissolution cases have already shaken public confidence in the country's oldest political party," said Thai Rath newspaper on July 18), referring to the Democrat Party. "With eroding public confidence, the coalition government finds it hard to maintain political stability."

Government corruption torments this Buddhist majority Southeast Asian nation, and is frequently exposed in front-page scandals which occasionally come to trial, with mixed results.

"Taking action against corrupt state agencies is a problem when the private sector is reluctant to provide confirmation of the kickbacks,” Abhisit said on July 16, in response to separate complaints by the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade about government officials demanding bribes from private companies.

"The private sector appears submissive and tolerant of the acts, rather than risking putting itself at odds with state agencies by pointing the finger at them," Abhisit added.

The prime minister and the military are meanwhile displaying a public show of unity after defeating on May 19 a nine-week insurrection by anti-government "terrorist" Red Shirts. During April and May, scattered clashes between the army and Red Shirts left 90 people dead, most of them civilians, and more than 1,000 injured. The military used armored personnel carriers and assault rifles to finally clear the Reds' barricades from central Bangkok's streets, who retaliated by burning down a flock of buildings in Central Bangkok and trashing shopping centers..

Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda is widely perceived as supporting Abhisit. It looks likely that Poajinda, who retires on Oct. 1, will be succeeded by Deputy Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Prayuth Chanocha, who is expected to take a harder line than Anupong, who despite the shooting in May is regarded by his colleagues and Thai analysts as a relatively dovish commander who was reluctant to use the heavy firepower against the Red Shirts' barricades, because he wanted to retire without his countrymen's blood on his hands.

The Red Shirts' insurrection failed in its bid to force an immediate dissolution of Parliament, and a nationwide election, which could have brought back Thaksin, who remains extremely popular in the impoverished northern area of the country. He was ousted in a royalist-backed 2006 military coup staged by Anupong and other top generals that has led to nearly four years of political chaos in the country. The generals later granted themselves amnesty for pulling off the putsch.

The rising Gen. Prayuth, 56, is widely regarded as hawkish, especially against Thaksin, and is expected to oppose any Red Shirt attempts to form a new government. If the government collapses because of the corruption trials, any new leader will need to consider the support of Anupong and Prayuth, given that the military has unleashed 18 coups and attempted coups since the 1930s, whenever it felt displeased.

The military now appears pleased that Abhisit increased the defense budget and generously allowed controversial weapons procurement contracts.

"Since the army is the only tool the Abhisit government has against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red Shirts, there is no question it has to keep the military happy," the English-language Bangkok Post reported earlier this month. The politicized military also wields a lucrative and influential media arm, owning more than 200 radio frequencies, a TV station and a TV channel's concession.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com