Enraged pro-government red shirts, in their strongholds in North and Northeast, burned coffins symbolising Constitutional Court judges on Friday, two days after the court disqualified Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister.
The Thai judiciary has come under increasing scrutiny since 2006, when the courts annulled the April 2 election that the opposition Democrat Party had boycotted. Five months later, a military coup ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on grounds of corruption and disrespecting the monarchy.
In May 2007, the Constitutional Court dissolved Thaksin’s party, Thai Rak Thai, for electoral fraud during the 2006 election.
The People Power Party (PPP), which succeeded Thai Rak Thai, also did not last long. The first PPP prime minister, the truculent Samak Sundaravej, was disqualified for receiving a small payment as expenses for taking part in a television cooking show.
In December 2008, amid anti-Thaksin protests by royalist yellow shirts, who also seized Suvarnabhumi Airport, the PPP was dissolved.
That pulled the rug from under then prime minister and Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat and paved the way for Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to become premier through a parliamentary vote.
Yingluck’s disqualification was thus the third time since 2008 that a prime minister of Thailand has lost the position through a court order. And since 2006, two elections have been annulled and two of Thaksin’s parties have been dissolved by court orders.
To independent legal analyst Verapat Pariyawong, the May 7 judgement that dislodged Yingluck was not a surprise.
In an e-mail to media, he wrote: “The court today made a reference to the infamous 2008 case in which the court (which comprised almost the exact same members as today), decided to remove the late prime minister Samak who went on a TV cooking show, deeming such an act as constitutional conflict of interest”.
That was a “most serious encroachment by judicial power on the executive branch”, he said. And as for current developments, he added: “This is a full-blown version of judicial coup with long-lasting impact on the balance of powers.”
And Dr Ekachai Chainuvati, deputy head of the law faculty at Siam University in Bangkok, was quoted by the New York Times on Thursday as saying: “This is what I would call a juristocracy – a system of government governed by judges.”
Benjamin Zawacki, an independent analyst, told the Straits Times: “The question is not so much the law; it is not as if people are taking issue with actual cases. It is about the consistent and almost predictable nature of these decisions.”
Thaksin supporters, like those who were burning coffins in the streets on Friday, see the judiciary as an arm of the conservative royalist elites.
Said Zawacki: “People have been reluctant to criticise the judiciary. It is seen as a redoubt of the elites.”
But that hesitation is fading.
Songkran Grachangnetara, a London School of Economics and Columbia University graduate who is now an entrepreneur, said: “The Constitutional Court in order to be the last resort in a conflict has to act with total – and perceived – responsibility.”
He added: “But I must say the evidence is really stacking up to what a lot of academics are calling a judicial coup.”