Thaksin family’s gamble fails to pay

British Broadcasting Corporation

Page last updated at 16:20 GMT, Thursday, 31 July 2008 17:20 UK

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra and his wife Pojaman leave Bangkok's Criminal Court on Thursday

The couple were once seemingly untouchable

The sight of Pojaman Shinawatra standing uneasily in the dock in Bangkok’s main Criminal Court may prove to be a defining moment in the shifting balance of power in Thai politics.

The guilty verdict was not unexpected.

But in sentencing her to three years in prison – and delivering a stern reprimand over her failure to set an example – the judge showed no hesitation in punishing and dressing down a woman still viewed by many Thais as among the most powerful in the country.

In court her husband, Thaksin Shinawatra, looked shell-shocked.

Over the coming months he will also be in court to defend himself against various charges of abusing his power while in office. The prospect of a woman who is not just his wife, but also his most trusted business and political partner, going to jail, must also now be weighing on him.

Impregnable?

At the height of his power, after an unprecedented landslide election victory in 2005, Thaksin Shinawatra seemed untouchable.

He was immensely wealthy, in a country where money has always played a crucial role in accumulating and maintaining political power.

His populist economic agenda helped build up a seemingly impregnable bedrock of popular support.

There were many quiet complaints about conflicts of interest, but no-one dared challenge these in court.

Just months into his first administration in 2001, he was exonerated from a charge of concealing his assets in a controversial decision by the Constitutional Court, despite apparently incontrovertible evidence against him.

It was the first example, said his critics, of his overwhelming power riding roughshod over the checks and balances built into the 1997 constitution.

Momentum fades

This was something the generals who overthrew Mr Thaksin in the coup of September 2006 vowed to correct.

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej

Thailand’s king made a rare intervention

But 16 months later, when the military handed power back to an elected government, they had made little progress. None of the legal cases they had brought against the Shinawatra family had gone to court – and there was no smoking gun for their claim of massive corruption.

All the cases were quite technical, alleging the kind of business and political transgressions which some would regard as routine in Thailand.

And the new government was led by Mr Thaksin’s own party. If the past was any guide, the momentum behind the cases seemed likely to fade.

So when Mr Thaksin made his triumphant return from exile in March, he must have gambled that he could beat the charges against him. It now looks as though he miscalculated.

Muscular courts

The courts are showing unusual toughness and tenacity in going after the Shinawatras.

A clear sign was in June when the Supreme Court, which will try at least three cases against Mr Thaksin, jailed the head of his legal team for attempting to bribe court officials with cash concealed in a cake box.

So what lies behind this sudden assertiveness of the judiciary?

When the military-appointed drafting committee was writing a new constitution last year, it gave Thailand’s top courts – the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court and the Administrative Court – greatly enhanced powers of supervision over politicians.

The judiciary was, in effect, called upon to be the muscular check on political abuses that Mr Thaksin’s opponents had felt was missing during his years in office.

But it is rooted in something else; a rare intervention by King Bhumibol Adulyadej two years ago, at a time when the country seemed paralysed, following a general election called, and won, by Mr Thaksin’s party, but boycotted by the main opposition.

At the time there seemed no constitutional way out, as some seats remained unfilled and parliament could not convene. There were calls for the king to appoint a prime minister.

King’s hint

On 26 April 2006 the king summoned the heads of the three senior courts to his palace in the seaside resort of Hua Hin, and told them it was their job to resolve the political crisis.

It would be unconstitutional, he said, for him to choose a prime minister. But he also hinted that any parliament in which the opposition was not represented could not be legitimate.

The judges took the hint. Within days the Constitutional Court did what no-one thought it would dare do.

It annulled an election in which Mr Thaksin’s party had won a clear majority. This turned the tables decisively against him, leading five months later to the military coup that finally unseated him.

In Thailand, even an immensely popular and wealthy politician like Thaksin Shinawatra cannot match the authority wielded by the king. If the courts are now showing unprecedented steadfastness in pursuing Mr Thaksin, it could well be because they believe they have royal backing.

 

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