Thai court hears contentious case on constitution

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Associated Press

Posted on July 6, 2012 at 7:02 AM

Updated Friday, Jul 6 at 11:34 AM

BANGKOK (AP) — A court on Friday heard witnesses defending an attempt to amend Thailand's constitution in a case that could revive partisan rancor and shatter the calm largely prevailing since a general election last year.

The charter was drafted in 2007 while an unelected government held office temporarily after a military coup had ousted a popular prime minister, and it has several provisions designed to limit the power of elected politicians. Contending the constitution is undemocratic, the ruling Pheu Thai party wants to set up an assembly to draft changes.

Opponents of amending the charter testified Thursday before defenders went before the Constitutional Court on Friday.

If the court rules the attempt to change the charter illegal, it could block the move or additionally, exact political punishment and order Pheu Thai dissolved.

The court announced it would issue its ruling on July 13, two days after hearing closing arguments.

The legal case is the latest skirmish in the sometimes violent battle between supporters and opponents of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in 2006 after being accused of corruption and disrespect for Thailand's monarchy.

Clashes have shaken the country's stability repeatedly. In 2008, Thaksin's opponents seized the prime minister's offices for three months and Bangkok's two airports for a week. In 2010, Thaksin's supporters held street demonstrations that degenerated into violence, leaving more than 90 people dead and almost 2,000 injured.

Thai courts are closely identified with the conservative establishment that loathes and fears Thaksin because of his popularity. Court rulings since 2006 have generally served to punish him and his opponents, leading to complaints the rulings serve political aims.

A clear victory by either side in the court case could draw the losers onto the streets in protest, which could escalate.

The more likely result, a legal ruling that bars immediate passage of the amendment but leaves the ruling party intact and free to pursue different approaches to charter change, will just keep discontent simmering on both sides.

"The court has three choices to make: to adhere entirely to the law, to mix in political science, or to succumb to high pressure from the majority in parliament and the public," said Somchai Phagaphasvivat, a political scientist at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

Opponents of changing the charter are mostly Thaksin's critics, who fear it could help him return to power. He is in exile avoiding jail on a 2008 corruption conviction, while his sister is the Pheu Thai leader and prime minister.

The constitution sought to limit the power of elected politicians in response to Thaksin's substantial democratic mandate. Thailand's traditional power-brokers, centered in the royal palace and the military, saw in Thaksin a rival for their influence.

While drafted under an interim, military-backed government, the constitution was approved by Thai voters. But they had no real option if they wished to see constitutional rule and electoral democracy quickly restored.

The charter changed the Senate from an all-elected body back to a partly appointed one and strengthened the hand of independent state agencies and the courts.

It also made political parties as a whole liable for infractions of electoral law committed by their officers. Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved in 2007 under its provisions, and its 111 executives were banned from politics for five years.

One result was a plethora of spouses and other relatives standing in for the banned politicians, the most notable case being Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra herself.

Another proxy politician complained about the matter in court Friday. "This constitution has left political parties (and) politicians all paralyzed. ... We now only have nominees. ... I am a nominee myself," said Deputy Prime Minister Chumpol Silpa-archa, president of the Chart Thai Pattana Party, whose brother Banharn, a former prime minister, is a banned politician.

The amendment under consideration in parliament does not deal with any of the substantive issues in the 2007 constitution, but seeks only to establish a constitutional drafting assembly to begin the process of change.

Those who brought the complaint to the court, however, argue the amendment would violate the constitution because it would amount to usurping the system of constitutional monarchy. That the court agreed even to hear such a complaint surprised many analysts.

"The complainants can sound reasonable as they want, but I view it as fantasy," said Sukhum Nuansakul, a political scientist at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University. "It's their imagination and involves too much anticipation that (the charter amendment) would overthrow the regime."

However, Sukhum was cautious on what to expect from the court, saying "I don't dare to speculate on the verdict, because lately a lot of logic in this country has been so skewed that I can't follow it."

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