Prison Sentence for ex Thai Prime Minister Thaksin

The prison sentence handed down to ex-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is just one part of the present Thai political crisis. Thaksin was found guilty of a "conflict of interest" because he was Prime Minister at the time when his wife bought a piece of land at a knock-down price from the Thai state. The land originated from bankruptcies in the 1997 economic crisis.

Earlier Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was found guilty of appearing on a TV cooking program and forced to resign. Samak was head of the Peoples Power Party (PPP), the descendant of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party (TRT) which was dissolved by the courts during the time of the military junta.

It is interesting to note that Thaksin's wife was not found guilty of any corruption by the courts, nor was the organization that held the land auction. This means that there is no evidence that the price paid for the land was below market rates or artificially depressed.

We need to look at the context of the court rulings. We are in the middle of a deep political crisis caused by an inter-elite conflict. One side of this conflict is made up of politicians who believe in parliamentary democracy, but do not respect human rights (Thaksin's TRT and PPP).

On the other side are politicians of the Democrat Party, bureaucrats, army generals, the ultra-right wing PAD protestors and members of the Royal Family, especially the Queen. This side wants to decrease the democratic space in Thailand. Their excuse is that they believe that the poor are too stupid to deserve the vote. The poor majority, both urban and rural, have consistently voted for TRT's universal health care scheme and the government's grass-roots Keynesian policies. They reject the monetarism of the Democrat Party and the Sufficiency Economy.

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The Thai courts have never been independent. Today they serve the elite faction which is against Thaksin. During Thaksin's time they served him. It is easy to punish an ex-prime minister, exiled in the United Kingdom. In the meantime, the widespread corruption among all politicians of all parties and among the military top brass is untouched. There are numerous land accusations against former ministers, prime ministers and generals. The junta that overthrew an elected government in 2006 and then appointed themselves to the boards of lucrative state enterprises are not being brought to account for abuse of power or corruption.

Today in Thailand, every public institution is compromised by double standards. This includes the Royal Family, the courts, the media and most of academia. That is why the PAD protestors are allowed to occupy Government House and organized armed protests, attacking police with weapons.

This is not about a strengthened civil society asserting its democratic rights. The PAD have powerful backers which allow it to break the law. Meanwhile the King has remained silent. Is this a sign of his lonstanding weakness? Yes, I think it is. But others believe that he supports the PAD. There is no concrete evidence to back this up, however. One cannot just assume that because the Queen supports the PAD, that the monarchy does too.

The Thai public who are outside the minority supporters of the PA, are angry and becoming more and more disenchanted with the elites. Many royalists were shocked that the Queen supported the PAD. But this public does not have a voice. They were passive voters for the government. Nevertheless, some government politicians are trying to mobilisz people. These are the Red Shirts, as opposed to the PAD Yellow Shirts. Yellow is the color of the King. But the Red Shirts are not socialists and only a fraction are republicans at the moment.

The courts are helping to do what perhaps the military cannot. They are pushing towards a civilian coup to topple the elected government. They may dissolve the governing party. Then there will be extra-constitutional moves to set up a special national government. The constitution will be changed to decrease the voting rights of the poor, if these elites get their way.

The only hope for Thai democracy is if civil society groups and academics refuse to take sides in this damaging conflict. We need to expand democracy and build a third alternative, independent from the TRT-PPP or the PAD-authoritarians. Unfortunately most Thai academics have disgraced themselves by their double standards. The hope must lie with some sections of the NGO movement, students, the Left and the more advanced trade union activists.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University.