Thursday, August 14, 2008

Thaksin Flees Thailand

August 14, 2008

Thaksin Shinawatra jumped bail this week and sought political asylum in Britain -- a final victory for the coup leaders who ousted him from power in Bangkok in 2006. The former Prime Minister said he didn't trust his chances for a fair trial; the government denied the charge. And therein lies the problem.

December's parliamentary elections reinstated popular democracy in Thailand, and Mr. Thaksin's successor party is back in power. But it did little to embed the kinds of strong checks and balances Thai democracy needs. The current constitution -- installed by the military government last year -- gives extraordinary powers to small committees, composed mainly of judges, including the right to appoint almost half the Senate and to populate important agencies like the Counter Corruption Commission and the Constitutional Court.

So when prosecutors started pursuing a string of fraud and corruption cases against Mr. Thaksin, many Thais wondered if the charges were real or politically motivated. Mr. Thaksin himself muddied the waters by saying in a statement Monday that he wanted a chance to prove his innocence, while at the same time, admitting that he is "not a perfect man."

That aside, Mr. Thaksin made a good point by noting "people who directly and indirectly supported the coup were appointed as members of organizations responsible for taking action against me." The military government set up a commission specifically to investigate the former prime minister.

Mr. Thaksin admittedly didn't do much to strengthen Thailand's democratic institutions during his five-year tenure, which was marked by strongarm police tactics, close ties with business and a culture of fear that curbed media freedom. But he was a popularly elected leader who enjoyed the support of the majority of Thais. That's why his successor party, the People Power Party, did so well in the December polls; it promised a swift return to Mr. Thaksin's policies.

Now with Mr. Thaksin in Britain, the way forward for Thai democracy is unclear. The former military government banned 111 members of Mr. Thaksin's old party, Thai Rak Thai, from running for office for five years. The ruling PPP could be disbanded if the courts decide to pursue allegations of voter fraud, and find it. The PPP itself may split into factions in the wake of Mr. Thaksin's hurried departure. If that happens, elections could be called next year.

That leaves the country's future squarely in the hands of the courts and the King, who, in a televised speech a few months before the coup, had publicly encouraged the courts to play a role in solving the country's political problems. The military is ever present in the background.

This may be a recipe for short-term stability, given how Mr. Thaksin tended to dominate the Thai polity. But it in no way deepens Thailand's democracy, or makes its leaders more accountable to the people they serve. In the long run, that isn't positive, with or without Mr. Thaksin.

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