Thailand’s Supreme Court has done its Solomonic best in the trial of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In ordering the seizure of a little more than half his assets, the court has punished the exiled leader without making him a martyr.
Splitting the difference may make political sense, but it does not address the real issue — the profound sense of alienation felt by the former prime minister’s supporters. The failure of the Bangkok government to recognize their grievances and address them means that the chasm in Thai politics will only deepen.
Mr. Thaksin was ousted from power in a military coup in 2006 on charges of corruption. A junta ruled for a year then rammed a new constitution down the throats of Thai voters that would ensure that the military and its allies among the Thai elite would retain their grip on power.
In subsequent elections, Mr. Thaksin’s allies prevailed, but they were forced from office over one pretext or another; extraparliamentary protests by Mr. Thaksin’s foes provided the push. All the while, the original corruption charges hung over the head of the former prime minister.
Some closure was reached last week, when the Supreme Court ordered the seizure of $1.4 billion of Mr. Thaksin’s assets. It concluded that the telecommunications magnate and his wife had hidden ownership of shares in Shin Corp, a family business, while he was in office. He ignored the conflict between his personal interests and those of the country, choosing instead to implement policies that benefited the company, his family and himself. Thus, one of the convictions was for approving a $127 million loan with favorable terms for the government of Myanmar, with the understanding that it would buy satellite services from Shin Corp.
Yet the court ruled that it could not seize all of Mr. Thaksin’s money — he is said to be worth $2.3 billion — since parts of his fortune had been made before he took office and were therefore not the result of corrupt practices. If the powers that be thought that reasoning would assuage the anger of the prime minister and his supporters, they were mistaken.
Mr. Thaksin has promised to fight the ruling and his allies are calling for a million-man march later this month. While the former prime minister has asked his supporters to protest peacefully, someone attacked four branches of the Bangkok Bank with explosive devices. The bank is Thailand’s largest commercial bank and is widely believed to back groups that ousted Mr. Thaksin. The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, the umbrella organization for groups that back the former prime minister, denied involvement in the attacks. Some believe the government is behind them to discredit the opposition.
Many believe a guilty verdict was inevitable. It probably was. The line between money and power in Thailand is thin and permeable and a businessman of Mr. Thaksin’s stature was bound to have cut some corners in his career.
More significantly, if the court had not found Mr. Thaksin guilty of corruption, then the entire premise for the coup against him would have been discredited and all subsequent governments and the current constitution delegitimized. That includes the government of the standing prime minister, Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Thus, there was considerably more at stake in this verdict than the status of one politician. And, indeed, Mr. Thaksin’s fight has been more than just a struggle for his redemption. Mr. Thaksin’s political career was an assault on Thailand’s established political order. His support came from disenfranchised and rural Thais who had been bystanders during the country’s march to economic development. Mr. Thaksin openly courted them with handouts during his five years in office. As he explained in a video from Dubai after the court ruling, his supporters should continue to fight to end the “rule of the aristocrats.”
To his opponents, Mr. Thaksin is a dangerous populist who is exploiting the ignorance of his supporters and manipulating them for his own ends. They accuse him of antidemocratic practices, although he appears to command a majority of Thai voters. They also accuse him of disrespecting the country’s much-loved king, a charge that cuts deep even among his supporters.
The notion that either side can completely vanquish the other is a mistake. Both sides must find some common ground that allows them to construct a workable and enduring political compromise. The marginalization of Thailand’s poor and rural citizens must stop. Their sense of alienation must be brought to an end. At the same time, the corruption that pervades Thailand must end. It saps the energy and efficiency of Thailand’s economy and undermines the legitimacy of its political system.
All of Thailand’s citizens must construct and accept a rule-based political system that gives all its constituents a voice and a stake in the country’s future. Anything less will perpetuate divisions that could bring the country to the brink of civil war.
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