A judicial revolution for Thai politics

Asia Time Online - Daily News

Jul 15, 2008

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK – Several recent Thai court rulings suggest that the country’s political landscape is being significantly altered by the judiciary, a rising trend some academics are referring to as a “judicial revolution”.

Last week a Supreme Court division that looks into election malpractice ruled against the former speaker of the parliament, Yongyuth Tiyapairat, for electoral fraud. The individual punishment for the offence includes revocation of all political rights and a ban from politics for five years.

Thai law does not stop there, however. Since Yongyuth is a former deputy leader of the People Power Party (PPP), the dominant partner in the ruling five-party coalition government led by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, the entire PPP party may

be dissolved over the charges. The Election Commission is now deliberating whether to set those legal proceedings in motion.

Also last week, the Constitutional Court ruled that Foreign Minister Noppadorn Pattama had violated the constitution through the joint communique he signed with Cambodia to pave the way for a disputed ancient temple on the Cambodian side of the Thai-Cambodian border to be recognized as a World Heritage site. The nine-member bench ruled his failure to place the bilateral issue before parliament for deliberation represented a violation of Thai law.

And on July 4 the Supreme Court barred former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra from leaving the country while corruption and tax evasion cases involving him and his wife are ongoing in Thai courts. The twice-elected Thaksin, who was driven from power in a September 2006 military coup, remains a key, behind-the-scenes figure of the ruling PPP, analysts say.

Cases to be heard later this month against Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee, Labor Minister Uraiwan Thienthong and Deputy Transport Minister Anurak Jureemas could also hurt the government in the coming weeks. So, too, could new corruption allegations leveled against Samak during his tenure as Bangkok governor. The judiciary is also taking a legal toll on the anti-government opposition, seen in last week’s lower court decision against People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest movement that its amassed demonstrators could not permanently block streets to hold their rallies.

It all comes as Thailand goes through a rocky political period, with many asking if Samak’s government, elected late-December, will survive even one year in office. In parliament, his administration came in for trenchant criticism by the opposition Democrat Party during a parliamentary censure session in June, while the local press has given the government little respite from a regular pummeling of critical stories and commentary.

The street has been just as hostile to his government. Since late May, the PAD has held daily protests across the city and in front of various government agencies, including Government House, to expose what its leaders see as the many flaws in the political alliance that Samak heads and the PAD alleges is serving as a political proxy for Thaksin’s interests. The anti-government street movement railed in particular against the PPP-led government’s aim to amend the 2007 constitution in ways to protect itself and its coalition partners from court-ordered dissolution on electoral fraud charges.

Samak had earlier backed off that motion after it generated political controversy, but in recent days has reaffirmed his government’s intention to amend the charter, which was written by military-appointed drafters and approved last year in a national referendum.

Judicial activism
Yet neither the opposition, press nor the PAD has shaken the government in the way the judiciary has with its recent verdicts. “We are witnessing a new trend involving the judiciary. This month’s cases are the latest. It is being called a ‘judicial revolution’,” said Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian and dean of the liberal arts faculty at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “The courts are playing a more decisive role in politics than before.”

The immediate beneficiary it seems will be the country’s struggling democracy, which was toppled in a military coup in 2006, Thanet contends. “The judiciary is helping to strengthen the checks on executive power for the good of our democracy,” he said. “The courts are emerging as a possible key entity to redefine the relationship between the people and the government. What we have is a new power equation.”

Indeed, the manner in which the courts have recently taken on sensitive cases and delivered verdicts against the politically powerful is raising new questions and expectations about the country’s political future, including the balance of power between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches. That balance favored the executive during Thaksin’s tenure, where his cabinet often bypassed parliament to implement controversial policies through decree.

“This shows that Thai people will have to rely more and more on the courts to resolve political problems. This is creating new concepts in Thai politics,” Siripan Nogsuan, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said at a recent seminar under the theme, “Crisis, Brinkmanship and Stalemate: What Next for Thailand?”
The excitement about an emboldened judiciary is understandable in light of how the courts have often been dimly viewed in this Southeast Asian country. “There has been a long-standing belief that courts are so corrupt, so biased, that people had no faith in going to them,” said David Streckfuss, a US academic specializing in Thai political culture.

On the political front, too, the superior courts in the past did not stand up to power, particularly when the country was in the grip of its many military dictators. “In the 1950s, the courts were happy to justify coups and legitimized the laws introduced by the military dictators that undermined the very laws the judges were supposed to defend,” Streckfuss said. “The courts were not taking cases to determine standards and the rule of law [to make] the government accountable.”

New legal mechanisms which emerged out of the progressive 1997 constitution aimed to create a more vibrant judiciary. Then came the April 2006 speech by the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, in which he told Administrative and Supreme Court judges to do their job to help resolve a political deadlock and growing tension on the streets.

Within weeks the constitutional court annulled the results of a controversial parliamentary election in which the main opposition Democrat Party boycotted and the Thai Rak Thai party Thaksin then led had won sufficient seats to create a one-party government. “Until April 2006 there hadn’t been much awareness that the courts should and could play such a decisive role in the country’s politics,” said Streckfuss.

”The king’s speech directed the courts to be more active. And since then, the courts have been causing the government a lot of grief.”



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