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Critics slam Thailand's activist judges

Judges increasingly are calling the shots in a tumultuous political situation. Are they playing fair?

By Correspondent / October 6, 2008

Temporary digs: Thai Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat (c.) met recently with his cabinet at the new government offices in Bangkok's airport.

Sukree Sukplang/Reuters


Bangkok, Thailand

Sworn in last month as Thailand's fourth prime minister in two years of turmoil, Somchai Wongsawat hasn't enjoyed much of a honeymoon on the job.

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For one thing, he can't even enter his office, as a royalist protest group stormed the compound in August and refuses to leave. Instead, his cabinet meets at an unused VIP airport terminal that has been converted into offices.

Then there's the niggling matter of a lawsuit filed by a senator last week that alleges a conflict of interest in Mr. Somchai's stock portfolio. A similar complaint led to the removal last month of his predecessor Samak Sundaravej over his TV cooking show. Somchai's political party is expected to face the same court in the next few months in a campaign fraud case that could lead to its breakup, a fate handed down to a forerunner party.

As Thailand girds for the next round in its political war of attrition, many eyes are turned to the judiciary whose rulings are increasingly setting the parameters for a fragile democracy. That represents a significant break from the past in a country that is more accustomed to military coups than judicial activism in settling political disputes.

But the partiality of the bench has been called into question by politicians caught in its purview. Others gripe that excessive legal safeguards are undermining the effectiveness of government, gumming up policymaking at a time when global financial turmoil demands a steely response.

Judges' increased clout raises concerns

In a deeply polarized nation, a more muscular role for judges also raises delicate questions over their political loyalties, particularly to the influential crown.

In a widely noted speech in 2006, King Bhumibol called on senior judges to sort out a disputed parliamentary election. It was later annulled by the courts.

The following year, a military-backed constitution – Thailand's 18th since 1932 – gave the judiciary and other state agencies an enhanced role in curbing the power of elected officials. These measures were a reaction to the overbearing style of Thaksin Shinawatra, a businessman-turned-prime minister who was ousted two years ago by a coup and accused of corruption and abuses of power. He fled to London in August to avoid trial.

But the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, says Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an analyst in Bangkok for the International Crisis Group, a think tank.