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Thawil's case and lessons in democracy

One problem with calling the case of Thawil Pliensri a "banana skin" for the caretaker Yingluck Cabinet is that one does not usually slip on one's own carelessly dropped object. The imminent Constitutional Court ruling on his removal, which will dictate Thailand's political course, is of the government's own making. It deserves attention from all students of democracy, whether they are pro- or anti-Thaksin Shinawatra.

To be strictly neutral, the transfer of the former chief of the National Security Council took place on that thin line between "democratic power" and "abuse of power". Should a democratically elected Cabinet be able to remove or transfer permanent state officials as it deems fit? Of course it should - that's what democracy is supposed to be all about. Even the best, most efficient official can be replaced if elected politicians feel that the change would enable them to work better or more efficiently.

But "work better" or "more efficiently" must be judged in the context of national interests. Thawil was bumped off the NSC to make way for then-police chief Wichien Pojphosri, who had in turn been forced to make way for Priewphan Damapong, who is closely related to the Shinawatras. It is alleged that Priewphan needed one last honour before he retired, so the Yingluck Cabinet gave him Wichien's job and pacified the latter with the NSC position.

The upcoming Constitutional Court ruling is part of a "conspiracy" to topple the government (in which case "a banana skin" won't work either, as the term implies an "accident" rather than a secret plot), the Pheu Thai camp says. This line of defence is tricky. Is Pheu Thai saying Thawil's transfer was justified but its opponents twisted it, or is it saying the transfer was undoubtedly bad but the Yingluck government was once again picked on?

Conspiracy or not, what the Constitutional Court has to consider is complicated. Was Thawil a victim of nepotism? Was Priewphan's appointment as national police chief nepotism? Yingluck will invoke "democratic power" to rebut claims that her Cabinet abused power to install an unqualified man for the Shinawatras' sake, not Thailand's.

Difficult, isn't it? First off, Priewphan was qualified for nomination. He rose through the police ranks and was nicely poised as one of the candidates to take the helm of the force. Is it his fault - or Yingluck's - that he happens to be closely related to the Shinawatras? And even if he wasn't that good for the job, did that really matter? If Yingluck felt "more comfortable" working with him, what's wrong with that?

It's never easy to argue against nepotism. We've heard about football coaches including their children in their teams. Corporate executives hire relatives or friends or those recommended by relatives or friends all the time. Controversies often plague school enrolment or awarding of scholarships. The list goes on and on.

But if in a democracy we can elect relatives to key positions at will, what differentiates it from dictatorship? This is a question that the caretaker government, which often invokes the "spirit of democracy" to defend itself, must answer. Why did we need to, say, replace a Roman emperor with an elected ruler if the two were to do the same things regarding demotions and promotions?

You may argue that the dictator is not "entrusted by the people" to appoint Priewphan and remove Thawil, while the elected ruler is. But isn't that practically saying bad things are all right as long as "the people" endorse them? Is democracy supposed to be better than that? Should democracy foster a common good instead of instigate a collective backslide toward the same old demons it's supposed to fight?

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is the last resort of those who insist that it's better for Priewphan to be appointed and Thawil to be removed by an elected ruler than a dictator. Less often mentioned, though, is that non-absolute power can also corrupt absolutely if it goes unchecked and the conditions are right.

These are the things that the Constitutional Court will have to ponder. The defence can also seek to establish that "inefficient" Thawil "deserved" to be transferred. But that would beg the question why the Cabinet only felt it was necessary to remove him after Priewphan's promotion became a must. There are plenty of press clippings showing the two cases were related and that one emerged before the other. And by trying to justify Thawil's transfer, the government would also have to prove Wichien was a better choice. Work records and experience would come into play.

In the end, it will be about whether Priewphan's appointment and Thawil's removal were cases of wrongdoing. If they were, the wrongs will have to be rectified. Some are calling it another kind of a "coup", but they must be careful about that. Deeming it a "conspiracy" can either help defend democracy or serve as a statement that "non-absolute power" shall never be checked.


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