Thailand’s Farcical Corruption Charges

The decision by Thailand’s National Anti-Corruption Commission Tuesday to charge 308 lawmakers with abuse of power, most of them from Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ’s embattled Pheu Thai Party, demonstrates how thoroughly the country’s Bangkok elites control the sinews of power.

They have used the country’s courts repeatedly to accomplish what they can’t at the voting booth, an act made doubly cynical by the fact that the very real corruption charges against politicians in surrogate parties established by allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra could be made against virtually any member of the political factions seeking to oust him.

The current charges revolve around what appear to be legitimate votes in the Thai parliament to change the composition of the Senate to make it more democratic – and, of course, to consolidate power for the Thaksin forces. There wasn’t enough evidence to charge Yingluck and 72 other lawmakers, the court said.

Courts have thwarted Thaksin’s allies going back to 2007, when his Thai Rak Thai Party was ordered dissolved by the Constitutional Court of Thailand on allegations of violations of electoral laws during a snap election. Thaksin had been forced from power eight months earlier in a military coup.

Although the court at that point banned 111 former Thai Rak Thai Party members, including Thaksin, from participating in politics for five years, the remaining members reorganized into a new People’s Power Party controlled by Thaksin, which handily won new elections in December 2007 and formed a coalition government.

Five months later, however, the courts ordered the PPP’s deputy leader, Yongyuth Tiyapairat, banned from politics for five years on charges of buying votes. Another court removed another party leader f\rom power on charges of concealing his wife’s assets.

Then, on July 8, 2008, the Constitutional Court threw out the entire Thai Rak Thai cabinet allegedly for failing to ask parliamentary approval for a bilateral agreement with Cambodia over the 900-year-old Preah Vihear Temple, which both countries claimed as theirs.

In September, after Samak Sundaravej took over as prime minister, he was booted out of office by the Constitutional Court on conflict of interest charges – for having hosted several episodes of a commercial cooking show on television. Samak was paid the equivalent of US$2,300 for the appearances, which he said he had used to cover purchases of ingredients and transport. The court ordered the resignation of the entire PPP cabinet as well.

The entire PPP was ordered disbanded by the Constitutional Court on Dec. 2, 2008, in the midst of chaos in the streets because of an onslaught against all of the country’s institutions by the People’s Alliance for Democracy. The so-called Yellow Shirt royalists, the predecessors to the current anti-Thaksin faction led by former Democrat Party Vice Chairman Suthep Thaugsuban, used largely the same tactics as Suthep, using thousands of people in the streets to bring government to a halt.

At that point, the army stepped in behind the scenes and ordered a flock of splinter parties and politicians to support the Democrat minority coalition headed by Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva, with Suthep as his deputy.

That all came apart in a welter of blood and bullets and fire on May 16, 2010, when the army, ostensibly ordered into action by Abhisit and Suthep, set out to roust tens of thousands of outraged protesters of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – the Red Shirts – from the Ratchaprasong intersection where they had camped in protest of having their government stolen from them.

It was one of Thailand’s darkest episodes, an action in which as many as 90 persons died, more than 2,000 were injured and the Central World shopping center was burned, either by retreating Red Shirts or set fire by tear gas grenades thrown by the military, as the protesters claimed.

New elections called in July 2011 and Pheu Thai – the third surrogate party for the banished Thaksin – won with an even bigger majority of 265 seats in the 500 member parliament, an unheard of absolute majority not requiring a coalition. Pheu Thai’s majority was strengthened further with the addition of 76 seats supplied by six splinter parties.

That magnitude was big enough to shut up the Bangkok elites until Thaksin, from his aerie in Dubai, attempted to get his sister to push through an amendment to allow himself and other protesters an amnesty. The move misfired badly, bringing the current generation of outraged protesters into the streets to stay there for the past two months.

The courts are now at it again. In this particular case, the lawmakers are expected to be charged with abuse of power for voting the proposed amendments, which would have transformed the 150-person Senate into a fully-elected chamber with 200 members. Currently, only 76 members are elected. The other 74 are appointed by from various sectors by the Senate Selection Committee.

The amendments would have also affected passages that bar direct relatives of MPs, political party members and recently retired MPs to run for the Senate and would have abolished the six-year one term limit. The Constitutional Court killed the draft amendments in November, alleging that a democratically elected Senate would “overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State.

The respected Gothom Arya, a former elections commission member and one of the country’s top constitutional experts, told the New York Times that the 308 lawmakers were being charged for “just doing their jobs” in voting through the amendments.

However, the opposition in the streets are out to stop the snap election called by Yingluck Shinawatra for Feb. 2 any way they can. A large number of the 308 lawmakers are running for office in the Feb.2 polls, which the Democrats are boycotting. Those charged have been asked to testify in front of the Anti-Corruption Commission over the next two weeks. The commission can then decide their cases – with the election only two weeks away at that point. If they are found guilty, which past practice suggests they could well be, that would mean there would be few incumbent Pheu Thai Party candidates able to participate.

In the meantime, Suthep has his tens of thousands of people in the streets, aiming to shut down the entire capital on Jan. 13. The continuing protest in the streets, which so far has taken eight lives, is raising concerns that the army is getting impatient. Comments by the army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and carried in the Thai media on a military coup have done very little to calm things down. “Don’t be afraid of things that haven’t yet happened,” Prayuth said. “But if they happen, don’t be frightened. There are [coup] rumors like this every year.”

There are also coups every year or so – 18 successful or attempted since 1933, keeping the place jumpy. But if the election is voided instead through a judicial coup, which seems entirely possible, don’t count on the quiescence of the Red Shirts who have seen their lives and situations improve dramatically in the years since Thaksin took over power in 2000. They are liable to be back in the capital, looking for revenge. Then the troops will be back.