Updated: Legal precedents, political ramifications

23 02 2010

Update: The always astute Bangkok Pundit has also blogged on this topic. Read the analysis here: 23 February 2010, “Is there legal precedent for the Thaksin asset seizure case?”

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We at PPT are not legal eagles, so on the Thaksin Shinawatra assets case, we have no particular expertise. Like everyone else, we are sure that it is a political case and that any calls for it to be viewed as something else are misplaced. We are also pretty sure that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban’s position that “We have to be confident in the panel of nine judges that they will rule with reason and legal principle. Our justice system meets the highest international standards…” is untrue.

The various calls for the verdict to be accepted, no matter what, sounds like a plea to accept judicialization as the new form of elite domination. All of these calls come from the Abhisit Vejjajiva government and the ruling elite that backs it. Prime Minister Abhisit sounds much closer to the truth when he warns: “To anyone who thinks of resorting to violence, we will deal with you swiftly…”. Even though most commentators have now moved to the position that the verdict is not going to be the defining moment that many had previously predicted, Abhisit is still threatening and seeking to control. After all, it is the acts of control that are most significant. Part of the reason that “rule of law” and “let justice take its course” rhetoric is important is in embedding a modified means of controlling in the oligarchy’s interests.

But what of legal precedents for the Thaksin case? Yesterday, the Bangkok Post (22 February) implied precedents when it stated that “Thaksin could join a disgraced group of [four] former politicians who lost millions of baht in assets after they were found guilty of being unusually rich.” The Post then stated: “The assets case is not the first of its kind in Thailand. Four such cases have been decided since the country switched from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in 1932.”

Actually, if the cases of former prime ministers Sarit Thanarat, Thanom Kittikachorn and Chatichai Choonhavan and former public health minister Rakkiat Sukthana are legal precedents, then the Post needs to add a fifth: the case against King Prajadhipok in the 1930s, when he was accused of ripping off state funds that he reckoned were his.

PPT is not at all sure that these cases are, in fact, proper legal precedents. According to The Nation (23 February 2010), the Sarit and Thanom cases were not decided by the courts. The one closest to the Thaksin case would seem to be that of Chatichai, not because he was convicted but because of the decision that the Supreme Court decided “that the asset scrutiny committee applied the court’s authority over the case improperly.” The precedent seems to be that the asset scrutiny committee in the Thaksin case, also set up by a military junta, has been declared constitutional in an action meant to prevent a similar challenge in the current case.

The Nation takes a different view on precedent, saying that the “nine Supreme Court judges will find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.” The Nation adds that a “dilemma the judges face is outlining a ruling based on legal principles, not sentiment,” and continues, “the case is unprecedented.”

Why is this? The Nation states: “This is the first judicial inquiry into abuse of power to enrich oneself – or ‘policy corruption’ – an offence that has no legal precedent.” Defining “policy corruption” is not going to be easy, especially as this was a political charge made by Thaksin’s opponents in the People’s Alliance for Democracy and the Democrat Party, and is now taken up, via the asset scrutiny committee, as a legal case. The Nation even claims that “there is no judicial review anywhere in the world addressing this issue.”

Friday’s verdict is eagerly awaited, on a par with the Thai Rak Thai Party dissolution case, and the political ramifications will be equally broad no matter what decision is made.


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