Thailand’s Yingluck to be Charged?

In what obviously is a continuing effort to permanently quash the Shinawatra family's political and business interests in Thailand, media reports say the Election Commission’s investigating panel is expected to indict former Premier Yingluck Shinawatra and seven other former ministers as well as the ex-police chief.

The nine are to be charged with allegedly using state resources and personnel for electioneering before the February 2 election this year, according to the reports, a charge regarded as flimsy by neutral observers and designed to get rid of her. The election, won by Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, was voided earlier this year by the courts.

The caretaker Pheu Thai government was brought down by a military coup headed by army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha on May 22. The military has been running the country with a heavy hand since, much to the apparent approval of most people, especially the amalgam of the opposition Democrat Party, royalists aligned with the king and the Bangkok business and elite community.

Yingluck was given permission to leave Thailand to help her brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, celebrate his 65th birthday. The two met in Paris last week. She has been ordered to return to the country by Aug. 29 to face charges. Asked if he thought she would return, a figure close to the Shinawatra family told Asia Sentinel “I hope she doesn’t.”

Not returning, however, presents the family and their political allies with bigger political and economic problems. The Shinawatra business empire still has substantial interests in Thailand, believed to be well in excess of US$1 billion. Its political interests – the governance of the country – are equally crucial. The Shinawatra interests have won every major election in the country since 2001, only to be driven from power, either by military coup or by court action.

“The retaliation against the Shinawatras is increasingly fierce,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an exiled academic and opponent of the junta who is now teaching in Kyoto. “The enemies of Thaksin and Yingluck have continued to employ the same tactics of using ‘independent’ institutions to eliminate them. This is a preventive measure so that they will not be returning in the next election, particularly as Thailand is approaching the uncertain royal succession.”

Yingluck and her allies from the Pheu Thai Party have been accused of violating election act provisions that make them liable to one to 10 years imprisonment and fines ranging fromBt20,000 (US$628) to Bt200,000 (US$6,280). More importantly, conviction also means the nine would lose the right to vote or hold party office for 10 years. The Pheu Thai Party risks being dissolved as well, which would put an end to yet another surrogate party run by Thaksin from outside the country.

The eight former cabinet ministers and the senior official are Plodprasob Suranswadi, Charupong Ruangsuwan, Chadchart Sitthipan, Santi Promphat, Sermsak Pongpanich, Thanusak Lek-uthai, Visarn Techathirawat and Pol Gen Adul Saengsingkaew. It appears almost certain that the junta will push the courts to convict the Pheu Thai leaders whether they deserve it or not.

There has been no mention of the fact that the opposition made every attempt to stop a legally called election, including using violence to close polling stations throughout the south of the country.

"This action by the Election Commission, which has continually proved itself to be anything but impartial when it comes to former PM Yingluck and Pheu Thai politicians, should be interpreted in conjunction with article 35 of the NCPO's new interim constitution,” said a longtime NGO official in Bangkok. “The game that is afoot here is to push through a politically motivated conviction of senior Pheu Thai politicians so that they are barred by the constitution from running in next year's elections set out in the junta's road map back to democracy.”

Ultimately, he said, the final constitution being written by the junta’s hand-picked Constitutional Drafting Assembly is expected to include a version of article 35, sec. 4, which states that it will include “effective strategies to prevent any persons who have a criminal or corruption background and violate the election law to hold a political position.”

“It's clear the National Council for Peace and Order is engaged in crass behind-the-scenes manipulation of politically controlled government agencies like the election commission to rig the game and thereby, it hopes, win a future election by disqualifying core leaders of the Thaksin political juggernaut,” the official said.

It is hardly a new stratagem. In May, the Election Commission ordered the 46-year-old Yingluck removed from office on the grounds that she had illegally transferred a civil servant appointed by the opposition to another post. She was also under fire from the National Anti-Corruption Commission in connection with the country’s badly run rice subsidy program.

The Bangkok forces have used what are obviously sympathetic courts in multiple cases to thwart the Shinawatra interests. Former Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-Archa, premier of the Thaksin-surrogate People Power Party, was unhorsed by the Constitutional Court in 2008. He was followed by Samak Sundaravej, who was cashiered because he took Bt5,000 for expenses for two TV cooking shows in violation of laws prohibiting outside income, although he didn’t receive a salary. Certainly, although neither Banharn nor Samak had a lifelong record for integrity during their political careers, the use of the courts to dispose of them and their political parties smacked of giving little juridical attention to the facts.

Certainly Thaksin himself and his confederates have come under a great deal of justifiable pressure because of deep questions over corruption in all of the successive regimes. But affection for the Shinawatras runs deep among the working classes because of the social programs the successive administrations put in place for rural voters. The junta, if it indeed drives Yingluck out of either politics or the country, still faces the problem of designing a constitution and an electoral process that would keep the millions of awakening voters from the north and northeast of the country from voting them out of power yet again.

“Guns and ballot boxes will be used to achieve what no truly democratic opponent was ever able to accomplish, which is to defeat Thaksin in an electoral fight,” the human rights official said. “This is the real face of the National Council and its so-called return to democracy - a sort of controlled democracy where the military will be able rule out participation by politicians that the generals don't like or don't trust."