Thai coup leaders bear down on Thaksin

In zealously attacking their former premier, junta members may be exceeding their legal rights.

With twice-elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra still exiled in London, the generals back home who ousted him Sept. 19 have set the wheels in motion to seize his belongings and dismantle his party.

The military has set up a new court to decide if Mr. Thaksin's waning Thai Rak Thai party (the name means Thais love Thais) should be dissolved on charges of fraud during last April's voided election. Last week, a junta-appointed Assets Examination Committee (AEC) said it would form 20 teams to investigate corruption allegations in Thaksin's administration.

"They are like 20 little armies that will help us search for evidence in each case," says Kaewsan Athibodhi, the committee's secretary-general. "The AEC will be the Army commander."

To some, Thaksin is simply getting what he deserves. Few dispute that some members of Thaksin's cabinet siphoned money from the state, even if hard evidence has yet to come out in public.

And Thaksin's record of intimidating the media, sanctioning extrajudicial killings, and disassembling checks and balances has been well documented. Many so-called democracy advocates in Bangkok agreed with the junta leaders when they claimed that Thaksin needed to go because he dismantled government watchdogs enshrined in the Constitution.

But a small, yet vocal, resistance is starting to declare that the generals' use of the legal system to serve their own political purposes is more egregious than Thaksin's. Although the junta staged a coup in the name of democracy, it has since quelled dissent by imposing and extending martial law, and has done nothing to increase oversight or strengthen checks and balances.

To the contrary, it has drafted an interim constitution with no public participation, decreed laws aimed at crushing the former ruling party, set up its own court, and assigned many of Thaksin's adversaries to investigate his assets.

"The legal system can be looked at as something quite murky," says Jade Dovanik, dean of law at Bangkok's Siam University. "We don't really know what the law is now."

After immediately tossing out the Constitutional Court and the 1997 Constitution, which many reformers had hailed as the country's best ever, the coup-leading generals drafted a temporary charter that gave the military significant powers. It then created a new court that decides cases based on the old legal system – even though the junta discarded that system on the night of the coup.

In one sign that the junta leaders plan, at the very least, to eliminate Thaksin's barely functioning political party, the military government made the punishment for being an executive member of a dissolved party much more severe than did the original law.

"It goes against the rule of law to increase the punishment for a crime after it has been committed," says Kanin Boonsuwan, a legal expert who helped draft the 1997 Constitution. "I'm concerned the whole process could turn into a mess."

That's not the only case making legal experts anxious. Many fear the attempts to prosecute Thaksin will mimic the efforts to seize the assets of former Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan, who was deposed in the 1991 coup.

After the military confiscated his belongings, a court later returned them after finding the investigative committee worked without judicial oversight.

Members of the body investigating Thaksin dismiss those concerns. "With Chatichai, the military called him a bad guy and then tried to come up with the evidence to prove it," says the AEC's Mr. Kaewsan, a professed Thaksin opponent. "For this process, we will try to establish evidence against Thaksin and then give him a chance to defend himself. The committee is acting just like a public attorney."

For Thaksin, having his political enemies act as prosecutor may not be so worrisome if the judges trying his case are seen as neutral. But ever since revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej implored the country's highest courts in late April to "solve the problem" following the "mess" caused by the boycotted election earlier that month, key court battles have consistently gone against Thaksin's government in decisions that constitutional law experts have labeled as politically expedient.

"I'm not sure how much we can trust the justice system in Thailand anymore," says Vorajet Pakeerat, a law professor at Thammasat University.

Despite it all, many Thais appear willing to trust the generals when they say a fair democratic system based on the rule of law is coming soon. But Thaksin supporters remain skeptical.

"This is the justice of the winners," says Mr. Vorajet. "Everyone complained so much about Thaksin's conflicts of interests, but now many people in organs involved with his case gave an opinion on him before the investigation began. People who support Thaksin may say this process is unfair from the start."

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