Thailand's Political Drama Continues

Prior to the verdict of the Thailand Supreme Court declaring deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra guilty of corruption and confiscating more than half of his personal fortune, I predicted that some of his money would be returned as a gesture of political compromise.

Although the court did as predicted, the ruling appears to have simply guaranteed Thaksin's permanent role in politics. The billionaire politician will not walk away from the political scene now. If his opponents believed that punishing him this way would drive him out, they are wrong. The deposed premier's bitter response, in which he called the ruling "a joke," gives no suggestion of political compromise. In fact, the guilty verdict appears to have led Thailand into another phase of political battle, a potentially more brutal one.

Already, the Office of the Attorney-General has said that it would quickly follow up on the legal consequences of the court's verdict, saying the Thai state suffered immensely in financial terms from his abuse of power. In addition, the royalist Yellow Shirt faction is vowing to continue to file a string of lawsuits against Thaksin.

Certainly, the Feb. 26 guilty verdict "will not heal the deeply polarised Thai politics," Jakrapob Penkair, former Minister of the Prime Minister's Office and one of the leading figures of the red-shirted National United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, said in an exclusive interview earlier this week.

Living in exile since violent protests broke out in Bangkok last April, Jakrapob has remained politically active from outside the country, hoping that eventually he and his comrades will drive what he calls the "aristocratic dictatorship" from power, which as he argued has long obstructed Thailand's democratic development.

Jakrapob was a spokesman for Thaksin, who was removed from office in a royalist coup in October of 1966. Jakrapob was charged with insulting the king in a speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and, after being charged, was forced to flee the country. He is one of 20 people who are being investigated for lèse-majesté in addition to the entire 13 members of the board of directors of the Foreign Correspondents Club. Another four have been convicted and given long prison terms.

The Red Shirts have vowed to bring a million protesters to the streets on March 14 to demand dissolution of the current government, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They say they will remain nonviolent in the wake of the black eye they took over violence that brought the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit to a stop in Patthaya a year ago, shocking the nation.

Asked to share his view on the Supreme Court's verdict, Jakrapob said he had not paid much attention to the legal technicalities involved in the case. But he added, "The entire case rests upon the court's legal justification for wrongdoings. Justification, as we all heard that day, was the power bestowed to them by the military coup of 2006 and its legal subsequence."

Jakrapob raised one important point: why do the courts recognize the illegality of the military coup of 2006 as well as the legitimacy of the current government, which was not elected? These are conditions fiercely in conflict with democratic tradition.

Arnaud Leveau, a Thailand expert at the Bangkok-based Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia, agrees: "What (the Red Shirts) hear in the verdict is that you can be above the law, organize a coup and then ask the court to say that the coup was legal."

"A military takeover has been treated as a legitimate source of legal authority," Jakrapob said. "One does not even have to hear the rest of the case to understand what was actually going on." To Jakrapob, "the verdict was simply a continuation, and in many ways, a completion of the 2006 coup. It is the first and foremost reason why the verdict will not heal anything in Thailand."

The guilty verdict has satisfied the military and some other factions in the establishment forces who have perceived Thaksin as a threat to their power. Yet, Jakrapob asserted that in misusing state mechanisms to go after Thaksin, they have done great damage to their own country, its judicial credibility and its reputation in the eyes of the world.

"The case should be seen as compelling evidence that Thailand's entire system has ceased to function properly, nothing more and nothing less," Jakrapob said. "I cannot imagine how our current conflicts are to evolve from this point on. It is always dangerous to tamper with the ‘independent powers' of the judiciary. This case, I believe, has elevated Thailand's problems into the level of the social and political structure."

Thaksin himself has condemned the ruling as politically motivated and a "joke" and insisted that he would appeal.

In such a vengeful climate, Abhisit is sitting tightly on his premiership. He in fact may not be the weak and inexperienced leader whom both his allies and enemies like to project. Day by day, his authority has grown stronger. He has made his decisions, and at many points, ignored the instructions from the Bangkok elites who can't stand Thaksin.

Abhisit has kept his distance from the court cases and has repeatedly confirmed his faith to the Thai judicial system. Ironically, Thaksin's open war against the court may well just strengthen Abhisit's political legitimacy. Moreover, the red-shirts' upcoming demonstrations could play into Abhisit's hands, especially if they turn violent, as they did last April. It would be convenient for the government to link the rally, violent or otherwise, with Thaksin's attempt to shred the credibility of the courts.

It has been more than three years since Thaksin was overthrown. Through the years, he has inspired many of his red-shirted supporters to go beyond his own personal plight to fight for injustice in society, and in particular the double standards nurtured by the well-to-do aristocrats who have dominated Thailand's political space for so long.

At a deeper level however, many sceptics say that what Thaksin had fought for was indeed to regain his frozen assets. Money, and not democracy, has been Thaksin's motivation to stay in the political limelight. From this viewpoint, had the Supreme Court decided to return all of his assets, Thaksin might have actually exited Thai politics. But such a decision was held hostage by the military coup which was staged purportedly to wipe out corruption engendered by Thaksin's administration.

Despite this murky picture of Thailand's politics, Jakrapob's concluding words were more positive:

"All in all, the case is beneficial to our course," he said. "If impartial supporters realise the state of injustice and the possible insult to their future's equal rights, our goals will be realised much sooner."

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.