Thai Democracy Tested as Judges Battle Thaksin: Southeast Asia

Thaksin Shinawatra
Thaksin Shinawatra, former prime minister of Thailand. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

Thailand’s ruling party warned democracy is under threat as its highest court moves to block lawmakers from changing the constitution in a country that has suffered 18 coup attempts in the past eight decades.

The Constitutional Court has no right to prevent Parliament from voting on an amendment that would create a new body to rewrite the charter, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung told reporters yesterday. A judicial challenge to the legislators’ efforts could lead to the disbanding of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s party, the third time courts have disqualified elected allies of her brother Thaksin Shinawatra since he was ousted by the military six years ago.

“Did they fall asleep and didn’t know we got our power from the election?” Chalerm said, referring to judges on the nine-member Constitutional Court. “Don’t go too far. This is too much and no one can accept this.”

The dispute risks reigniting street protests pitting Thaksin supporters who have won five straight elections against opponents who accuse him of undermining the monarchy and subverting the legal system to allow his return from exile. Thai stocks dropped to a four-month low as consumer confidence fell for the first time in half a year in May because of escalating political strains and higher costs for food and oil.

“Rising political tension has significantly weakened sentiment in the Thai stock market, which has already been hurt by European debt concerns,” Thongmakut Thongyai, chief executive officer of SCB Securities Co., a brokerage unit of Siam Commercial Bank Pcl, the country’s third biggest. “The government will now focus on resolving the political deadlock rather than on economic policies.”

Foreigners Sell

The SET Index gained 1.7 percent, rising in line with regional peers. It has fallen 8.9 percent over the past month, more than benchmarks in the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore.

Overseas investors sold a net 2.39 billion baht ($75.9 million) of Thai stocks today, extending net sales this month to $142.6 million. An index measuring consumer sentiment fell to 67.1 in May from 67.5 in April, the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said yesterday.

Lawmakers must “take responsibility” if they ignore the Constitutional Court’s request last week to suspend consideration of an amendment that would establish a 99-member body to rewrite the constitution written after the 2006 coup, court President Wasan Soypisudh told reporters today. A hearing is scheduled on July 5, he said.

‘Overturn the Sky’

The judges want a vote on the amendment to wait until after they decide whether the process violates Article 68 of the constitution, which restricts attempts “to overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State.” The clause allows the court to disband political parties that contravene the stipulation.

“Even if we find out after the hearing of related parties that this constitutional amendment will not lead to the overthrow of the democratic system with the king as head of state, at least we want them to give a public promise there won’t be anything like that,” Wasan said. “There will not be anything to overturn the sky and the earth.”

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84, took the throne in 1946 and serves as head of state. Insulting him can lead to a 15-year jail sentence.

Pheu Thai won a majority in last July’s elections after campaigning on changing the document to make it harder to disband political parties. It also sought to curtail the power of appointed judges, soldiers and bureaucrats.

Impeachment Argument

The Constitutional Court can accept petitions directly as well as from the attorney general, court spokesman Pimol Thampitakpong said by phone, dismissing criticism from Pheu Thai lawmakers who accused the judges of acting improperly in taking up the case. Prosecutors will start a separate investigation, Vinai Dumrongmongcolgul, a spokesman for the Attorney General, told reporters yesterday.

Robert Amsterdam, one of Thaksin’s lawyers, released a paper yesterday arguing for the impeachment of Constitutional Court judges. The country can’t have rule of law “so long as the country’s highest court is composed of judges who make so little pretense of independence and impartiality, and act with such blatant disregard for the Constitution they are sworn to uphold,” according to a statement on his website.

In an interview last week, Yingluck asserted parliament’s legitimacy to decide how to rectify injustices since the coup, including on bills that may provide an amnesty for Thaksin, who has lived overseas since fleeing a two-year jail sentence in 2008. Lawmakers postponed deliberation on the bills last week after his opponents blocked entrances to the building.

Delay Push

Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva pushed for the government to end the parliamentary session, telling a broadcaster affiliated with his party that the constitution changes and laws dealing with political offenses are not urgent issues. “We should delay them and the government can go back to solving the economic and cost-of-living problems.”

The judiciary has played a leading role in determining Thai political outcomes since 2006, when King Bhumibol called on judges to resolve a pending constitutional crisis. Since then, courts voided an election won by Thaksin’s party, disqualified about 200 politicians linked to him, sentenced him to jail and seized 46 billion baht of his wealth.

The Constitutional Court will probably try to win assurances in writing that Pheu Thai has no plans to change articles affecting the monarchy or the independence of the judiciary, said Kaewsan Atipho, a member of a panel that investigated Thaksin after the coup and supports the court’s actions. Ultimately, the amendment process will likely be allowed to proceed, he said.

‘Poker Game’

The political maneuverings “are like a poker game where everybody has a gun in their pocket,” Kaewsan said. “Thai society is the loser.”

Thaksin’s opponents, known as the Yellow Shirts, seized government buildings and airports in 2008, ending their protests when a court disbanded his ruling party for election fraud, paving the way for Abhisit to take power. The group accused Thaksin of seeking to reduce the power of the king, whom the constitution says “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship.’

Thaksin’s supporters, the Red Shirts, began large-scale demonstrations after Abhisit became prime minister, with some factions pushing to change laws that shield the king from criticism. The group’s protests in 2010 ended in a military assault, arson attacks and more than 90 deaths.

Another ‘‘judicial coup” may take place before street protests spin out of control, a possible pretext for another military intervention, according to Paul Chambers, director of research at the Southeast Asian Institute of Global Studies at Payap University in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand.

“If things continue as they are right now, then Yingluck’s days are numbered,” he said. “If Pheu Thai steps back and ends the attempts to change the constitution, then Yingluck can stay in office perhaps until her term is over.”

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