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Thailand faces another trial

Once again, the course of justice will decide the fate of a newly elected government - and the country

Published on February 17, 2008

House Speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat's current political plight is like a mini-rerun of that of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001. But this seemingly "minor" case - compared to Thaksin's shares concealment trial - also carries the same eerie atmosphere as far as the country's political future is concerned. If Yongyuth is finally found guilty of electoral fraud as charged by an ad hoc Election Commission panel, the stability of the new government will immediately be thrown into doubt. All of a sudden, the rocky start of our new political life appears much rockier.

Worse news is that things can get worse with either final outcome. A guilty verdict could lead to dissolution of the ruling People Power Party. This would result in absolute turmoil. An acquittal would ease political tension, but again, the 2001 lesson taught us what could happen in the long term if a court ruling is based on "political", not "legal" factors.

This is not to say that Yongyuth appears to be guilty. The judgement is up to the Election Commission, which is expected to meet on the bombshell case as early as next week, and then the Supreme Court, which is empowered to issue the final ruling. The point that everyone concerned must be aware of is that when political factors interfere with legal processes, the seeds for bigger future trouble are normally sowed.

In 2001, evidence against Thaksin in the shares concealment case was damning. Nominees found to be holding more than Bt10 billion Shin Corp stocks were undeniably his servants or mysterious foreign-based firms. It was inconceivable how he could have honestly failed to report those accounts in his asset reports to the National Counter Corruption Commission. But the Constitution Court back then set him free, most likely because a guilty verdict would have banned him from politics for five years. What happened next? Those "hidden" shares played a big part in the alleged tax-evasion scheme when Thaksin sold his telecom empire to Singapore's Temasek Holdings. The rest is history. We ended up getting entangled in the politics of vengeance, of bending rules and opportunism, with all the old wounds reopened and exploited.

The situation now is eerily familiar. A guilty verdict against Yongyuth could wreak havoc on a political party that has just won a general election. The country's justice system could soon be forced once again to weigh political factors against legal ones. And again, Thai society would be grappling with a similar soul-searching question: even if Yongyuth really is guilty, is it worth punishing him "for what virtually everybody else does more or less" and risk jeopardising political stability as a result?

Yongyuth allegedly committed electoral fraud while standing in the general election as a party-list candidate in Zone 1, which covers Chiang Rai. A source in the EC ad hoc panel said 10 kamnans insisted they had received Bt20,000 each from Yongyuth. As he is an executive of the People Power Party, a guilty verdict would automatically start an investigation into whether the fraud was committed in the name of the party. That would mean the government's fate would be hanging in the balance.

How come cases involving Thai politicians always cause so much trouble? Are they so important to national survival that we need to bend the rules for them if they can't find a way out otherwise? Aren't they supposed to set good standards for civil society? We have seen other criminals convicted on the basis of ambiguous or even unclear evidence. If only politicians were treated the same way as their fellow Thai citizens, maybe we would not be stuck in this vicious circle. Granted, in politics smear campaigns are normal and greater protection is required, but in Thailand the term "conspiracy" is grossly overused and always carries far greater weight than evidence of a crime.

It won't be easy for the EC when it takes up the ad hoc panel's report on Yongyuth. It won't be easy for the Supreme Court if the EC gives Yongyuth a red card. If the Supreme Court finds Yongyuth guilty, it won't be easy for the EC, which will then have to establish whether it was an electoral crime committed in the name of the PPP. And if the EC implicates the ruling party, the political future of Thailand will again rest in the hands of the Constitution Court, where all this political mess started.

The Nation

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