With its prime minister ousted, here’s what to expect in Thailand

Supporters hug ousted Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on May 7, 2014. Today Thailand's Constitutional Court dismissed Yingluck from office for abuse of power, in a ruling that threatens to unleash a new wave of political unrest in the kingdom.
Credit: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

BANGKOK — For months, she had outmaneuvered forces seeking her ouster. But the powerful foes of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female prime minister, finally got their way.

Yingluck — 46, mild-mannered, nicknamed “crab” — is no longer Thailand’s premier. On May 7, influential judges finally made good on threats to kick her out of office for actions “lacking in ethics and morals.”

Her actual offense makes for an extremely dull scandal. Three years back, Yingluck promoted the national police chief to a new job as her top security advisor. That opened the police chief job up to her former brother in law.

It was a nepotistic plot, the courts ruled, warranting the ouster of the nation’s elected premier.

But her political camp says the court proceedings amount to a judicial coup.

In Thailand, it’s now incredibly easy for courts to throw out elected prime ministers and even whole political parties.

This is no accident.

The military — notorious for carrying out 18 coups in 80 years — staged its last takeover in 2006. During their rule, generals wrote a new constitution that enables judges to kick out elected politicians for petty offenses. Army-aligned courts have used this power with great zeal. Three premiers have now been fired by judges. One was unseated simply for hosting a TV show in which he cooked Thai food while grumbling about politics.

Each premier bounced from office has something in common. All are allegiant to Thaksin Shinawatra. He is Yingluck’s older brother and acts as the godfather of a political network backed by the rural and working classes. This network has won every major election in the 21st century. In doing so, they have threatened an old guard, centered around the army and the palace, that has controlled the nation since the direct rule of kings.

For months, Yingluck has been besieged not only by courtroom threats but royalist street protesters who have threatened to kidnap her and install a non-elected council. This street faction, openly blessed by the courts, successfully sabotaged a February election that Yingluck’s party was predicted to win. This camp has since egged on judges to carry out Yingluck’s ouster.

“The courts delivered the result we expected. Everyone knows the judges are out to get our side,” said 47-year-old Mahawon Kawang, a childhood friend of Yingluck. “This type of court shouldn’t exist in our society. Their justice only benefits their own tribe.”

But ousting yet another elected leader courts bloodshed and even civil war. “Once the rule of law in the chamber is gone, all that is left is probably violence on the street,” said Verapat Pariyawong, an independent legal scholar who has previously worked as a government advisor.

“Needless to say,” Verapat added, “this is a full blown version of judicial coup with long-lasting impact on the balance of powers.”

Judges and tanks undermining election outcomes has given rise to Thailand’s anti-coup force, the Red Shirts, an upcountry-based faction that has vowed to fight back against any future coups. In March, senior-ranking Red Shirt leaders told GlobalPost that the faction was amassing recruits and evaluating their weapons skills in case the group needs to wage armed resistance against any future coup makers.

But Mahawon, an influential Red Shirt in the Shinawatra clan’s native province of Chiang Mai, said the ruling against Yingluck probably won’t provoke the Red Shirts to unleash their full-on, anti-coup strategy.

The courts kicked out Yingluck and nine of her cabinet members. The elected ruling party, however, is still standing.

But just barely. The party is stuck in a “caretaker” mode after dissolving itself late last year in advance of new elections. Those elections were expected to fully restored the party’s power. They were instead nullified after street mobs assaulted voters and forcibly shut down polling stations. The next election may take place in late July.

Until then, Thailand has a placeholder prime minister: Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, a 66-year-old former businessman who’s stepping up from the deputy premier’s seat. (At eight syllables, his name is exceptionally long even by Thai standards.)

Yingluck, a political novice before her landslide election victory in 2011, could potentially come back to power if she wins an election later this year. In a televised speech, she denied all wrongdoing and said she has “worked with the intention and devotion to serve the people as they have trusted me and voted for me.”

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