Thailand: Thaksin Acquitted: Now for the Real Trial

2001

Dr John Funston

Prime Minister Thaksin is part of an East Asian regional phenomenon. Tired of stagnant or crisis-hit economies, people are looking for a man on a white horse who will provide a quick fix – often with an indigenous, anti-foreign flavour. Japan has charismatic Junichiro Koizumi. Indonesia propelled Megawati Sukarnoputri to leadership in a wave of nostalgic longing for the imagined glories of Sukarno. Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, is popular. Campaigning on a platform of populist promises to the poor – such as 30 baht (just over $1) health treatment and a 1 million baht fund for each village – and promises of instant solutions to economic problems, his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais, or Thai Patriotic Party) won nearly half the seats in January general elections. This eclipsed all previous Thai electoral wins.

Now Thaksin has now pulled off another remarkable victory with a narrow (8-7) acquittal by the Constitutional Court, on charges that he intentionally concealed assets of around US$200 million during and after ministerial office in an earlier government. That result had not been predicted by legal experts, who felt the case against him was overwhelming. The verdict appeared to defy legal precedent, and came amidst bizarre circumstances, including rumours of pressures on judges.

With the Court’s favourable verdict, his domination of parliament and enormous popularity, Thaksin’s position might appear impregnable. But his most difficult trials may be just beginning.

The public now will demand the economic benefits promised, and that’s not possible in the short term with feeble international demand for Thailand’s exports. There are no quick fixes for Thailand’s myriad post-crisis economic troubles.

In addition, many Thais view the Constitutional Court’s verdict, and Thaksin’s view in response to it – that the constitution should be changed so that honest persons such as himself would not be troubled again – as a direct challenge to the constitution and rule of law. This, together with Thaksin’s growing impatience on environmental issues and continuing efforts to clamp down on the media, may cause NGOs once prepared to make an exception for Thaksin to think again. Unless he changes track, the stage is set for confrontation between Thaksin and civil society. His immediate problems include Senate investigation of the Constitutional Court (possibly leading to indictment of one or more judges), and opposition by NGOs and independent watchdogs to growing media control and environmental shortcuts.

WATCHPOINT: Postscript: The terrorist attack on the USA affects Thailand in a number of ways. The Thai economy will be adversely affected, with tourism likely to be a major sufferer. Second, there is concern about a growth in activity by long dormant Muslim radicals in southern Thailand. Third, the attack has led to very strong statements by Prime MinisterThaksin in support of the US, including willingness to allow the US to use airbases and sharing of information. Cavan Hogue, Chair, National Thai Studies Centre

 

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