19 February 2014

“This case is over...”

Democracy Monument

A general election was held as scheduled on 2nd February, though the government continues to face street protests and judicial interventions. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra met the Election Commission of Thailand on 28th January, after the Constitutional Court decreed that the election could be legally postponed. While the ECT called for a delay, Yingluck argued that there was no legal precedent for an extension beyond the sixty-day period stipulated by the constitution.

People’s Democratic Reform Committee protesters attempted to prevent voting on election day, just as they had when advanced voting took place on 26th January. 89% of polling stations opened successfully, though voting was cancelled in nine provinces due to PDRC disruption and lack of Election Commission officials. Kitti Eaksangkul was almost strangled by a PDRC protester as he attempted to enter a polling station, and a photograph of the assault was reproduced in newspapers around the world. On the day before the election, a lone gunman shot four pro-democracy demonstrators at Lak Si in Bangkok. (His M16 rifle was concealed in a Kolk popcorn bag, which has since become a tasteless fashion accessory among some PDRC members.)

There is still confusion surrounding twenty-eight constituencies in which no candidates could register for the election, marking another disagreement between the government and the Election Commission. The government maintains that the existing royal decree can be applied to the new round of registrations and by-elections, though the ECT insists that a new decree is required. This is uncharted legal territory, a further sign of the stalemate created by the cycle of protests in Bangkok. As with the election postponement, the ECT will ask the Constitutional Court to adjudicate on the need for a royal decree.

Following a petition from the Democrat party (which boycotted the election) seeking an annulment of the election, the Constitutional Court ruled last week that the election was legal. This was an unexpected victory for the government, as the court had annulled the 2006 election (which the Democrats also boycotted).

The Democrats have previously accused the government of disrespecting Constitutional Court judgements (after the court rejected Yingluck’s bill to restore a fully-elected Senate), thus the Democrat lawyer was careful not to challenge the court’s validation of the election. The lawyer, Wiratana Kalayasiri, said: “This case is over. But if the government does anything wrong again, we will make another complaint.”

The PDRC protesters are still occupying several intersections in Bangkok, though they closed two of their camps at the start of this month. The protest sites are almost deserted during the daytime, though more protesters arrive in the evenings. Some sites resemble street markets rather than political demonstrations. Also, PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban has failed four times to appear at the Criminal Court to answer murder charges relating to the 2010 military massacre.

More than a month after Suthep’s ‘Shutdown Bangkok’ protest escalation, the police have begun an attempt at reclaiming some of the blockaded buildings and roads. Yesterday, four protesters and a police officer were killed at Phan Fah near Democracy Monument. Protesters attacked the police with grenades and gunfire, and the police responded with live ammunition.

Today, the Civil Court ruled that, while the government is within its rights to declare a state of emergency, it has no authority to disperse the protesters. This judgement is a contradiction, as political demonstrations are forbidden during a state of emergency. It also legitimises the illegal protest movement and represents another judicial undermining of the government’s authority. Furthermore, the ruling is in contrast to the Civil Court’s decision of 5th April 2010, when it decreed that the government did have the authority to disperse United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship protesters.

Yesterday, the National Anti-Corruption Commission unanimously decided to bring formal charges against Yingluck for her role in the government’s rice subsidy scheme. This could potentially lead to her impeachment, if she were found guilty. Impeachment would require a three-fifths majority vote in the Senate, though Yingluck would be suspended from duty pending the Senate’s vote.

In 2011, the government agreed to pay farmers up to 50% above the market rate for their rice, intending to withhold it from the world market and thus drive up the price. The result, however, was that other countries such as India and Vietnam increased their rice exports, the government was left with vast stockpiles of rice that it could not sell, and therefore it could not pay the farmers for the rice they had supplied.

Despite initially dismissing the rice farmers as uneducated peasants, the PDRC have now embraced the farmers as victims of the government, and are raising money to pay them. (Suthep accused the government of buying votes with this and other policies, though he is now employing the same strategy by paying the rice farmers himself.)

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