Weekly Insights and Analysis

In Thailand: No Kangaroo Court Waiting for Thaksin Shinawatra

March 7, 2007

By James Klein

According to the Thai media, one reason given for the decline in popularity of the Council for National Security (CNS) ” led by coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin and the interim government of General Surayud Chulanont — has been their failure after five months in office to bring Thaksin Shinawatra and members of his cabinet to justice for corruption and abuse of power, one of the stated objectives of the coup.

Thaksin has repeatedly taunted the government through the international media by asserting that the Assets Scrutiny Committee (ASC) — established by the CNS to investigate allegations — has failed to find any solid evidence against him and will be unable to file any charges against his administration or extended family members. CNS Chairman General Sonthi has countered in a recent interview with Time Magazine that charges will indeed eventually be brought against Thaksin.

What are the causes of the delay in prosecuting Thaksin and his associates? Counter-intuitive to governance after a military coup, the CNS is sincerely attempting to adhere to the rule of law and follow proper legal procedures.

After the February 23, 1991 coup led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon, kangaroo court procedures were adopted to convict members of the deposed Chatichai Choonhavan administration (1988-1991) and confiscate their assets. Quick and decisive, this process was just what the Thai public wanted to see then to justify the coup, just as they have been hoping for now. However, after return to elected civilian rule, the regular Thai courts overthrew these extra-judicial rulings in 1993; assets were returned; and political careers resumed. The CNS does not wish to make similar mistakes that would allow corrupt politicians to once again slip through the fingers of justice and return to politics/business as usual.

What has been widely reported as ASC inaction or incompetence are in fact legal obstacles ” the ASC only has authority to investigate allegations not adjudicate them. What makes the ASC particularly unique from previous Thai investigation committees, however, is that it includes a number of retired judges who are fully aware of rules of evidence and procedure, as well as the complexities of citing the correct section of law on which to base charges. This has inevitably slowed the process of preparing indictments because these judges have insisted on building airtight cases. Unfortunately much evidence rests in the hands of involved government agencies that have been slow to provide the ASC with requested documents. Both Sonthi and Surayud have threatened officials who “drag their feet” or stay in “neutral gear” in providing requested evidence that they risk transfer or removal from office.

More problematic, Thai law severely limits who may file charges against government agencies or personnel. Thus, although the ASC has very broad powers of investigation, it does not have the authority of special prosecutors in many countries to actually file charges. Under Thailand’s current National Counter Corruption Act (1999), only the agency to which charges are to be brought has legal standing to submit a complaint to the courts. For example, politicians and Ministry of Agriculture bureaucrats are alleged to have engaged in corrupt practices in contracting the nation’s largest agro-industrial conglomerate to provide rubber tree saplings to farmers. Neither politicians nor ministry officials have an interest in filing charges that will inevitably implicate themselves or their potential future private sector employer. Obviously this limitation has been a principal reason why it was almost impossible to file corruption charges against Thaksin and his cabinet, not to mention previous administrations, while they were in power. The ASC has convinced the CNS and government that waivers must be expanded so that it and other agencies, if not members of the public as well, have the legal right to file charges before a court against corrupt officials. Amendments to the law have now been completed but (again, counter-intuitively) they are not being implemented by either military or government decree, as one would expect after a military coup but rather through proper, more time-consuming parliamentary channels.

If the CNS was relying on dictatorial, authoritarian measures to rule Thailand, as one anticipates the style of all military juntas, these issues would be moot and Thaksin and his cronies would have been tried and convicted months ago. However, through both word and deed, the CNS appears to be making every effort to uphold its promises to abide by the rule of law (the coup itself a noted exception) and return Thailand to full democratic rule.

Related locations: Thailand


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