DEMOCRACY has died in Thailand today, along with the rule of law.” So wrote a furious Yingluck Shinawatra, the country’s first female prime minister, on her Facebook page. It was the only space she had to grouse publicly after the military-appointed parliament in Bangkok impeached her last Friday.
Attempts by her lawyers to hold a press conference the same afternoon were stymied as soldiers obeyed orders to block the venue. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who staged a coup last May to oust Yingluck’s administration and is now the self-appointed prime minister, was clearly in no mood for salvoes against his rubber-stamp National Legislative Assembly (NLA).
Eight months into the general’s time as Thailand’s latest strongman, the image he has cultivated as an honest broker helping to heal the country’s deep political divisions has been shattered by Yingluck’s impeachment and silencing.
The NLA’s verdict created many anti-democratic precedents. For one, Yingluck has been “impeached” when no longer in office: she was forced to step down by a controversial court ruling weeks before the coup. Secondly, she was charged for violating a clause in a Constitution that had already been torn up by the junta following its power grab.
The embattled former premier raised the first piece of illogic as part of her defence in this show trial. But it was pooh-poohed by the NLA, more than half of which is stacked with serving and retired military officers. Similar lack of concern was displayed for the dangerous precedent of impeaching a former elected prime minister — a first for Thailand — for an alleged past violation.
Yingluck’s fate followed from a costly rice-subsidy scheme that her government rolled out to help struggling farmers after a thumping electoral victory in mid-2011.
The scheme was plagued with corruption and lost the state billions of dollars, charged the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), which spearheaded the campaign against Yingluck.
The impeachment, which carries a five-year ban on holding political office, was not Yingluck’s only bad news. Criminal charges for negligence were also filed against her the same day, which could result in a 10-year-jail term. The final arbiter of her political career will be a bench of the Supreme Court.
The impeachment and charges are a victory for the ultra-royalists and the conservative political establishment. The latter are drawn from Bangkok’s wealthy, supposedly independent, watchdog institutions such as the NACC, Constitutional Court and senior palace advisers.
In their crosshairs for nearly a decade have been the Shinawatras, the country’s most politically influential clan, whose successive electoral triumphs since 2001 have threatened the old order.
The conservatives got their first scalp in Yingluck’s elder brother, Thaksin, a tycoon and former prime minister turfed out by a 2006 military coup. He now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term for corruption.
Until the impeachment, Prayuth had tried to appear above this bitter feud, which has notoriously pitted the so-called Yellow Shirts camp of the largely Bangkok-based pro-establishment forces against the Red Shirts, a pro-Shinawatra grassroots movement spread across the rural north and northeast. The famously testy general even lashed out late last year at Yellow Shirt pressure for him to go after the “Thaksin regime”.
But Prayuth’s fence-sitting ended after the NACC pressured the NLA to endorse its accusations.
“It was a reluctant move on the [junta’s] part to impeach Yingluck,” says Paul Chambers, a Thai military expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. Had the NLA not impeached her, the powerful middle and upper middle class — including palace advisers — would have abandoned support for the regime, he said.
And by siding with the conservatives, Prayuth has returned a favour for the support he got from this anti-democratic camp for the coup.
“They needed ‘justice’ to justify backing the last coup,” says Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a Bangkok-based think tank.
Yet, it is an outcome that has paved the way for long-term instability, reveals a highly-placed political insider, coming amid growing discontent at the emerging language of a new Constitution being drafted by a junta-approved committee.
“There cannot be a new constitution without a referendum,” adds the source. “And if the discontent grows to defeat the referendum, the army will stay in power, triggering a common front of political parties against the military.”
Yingluck may then finally have her day. But first, having vowed to prove her innocence, she has the Supreme Court to contend with.
This article first appeared in this week’s edition of The Edge Review at http://www.theedgereview.com
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on February 4, 2015.