Whither justice in Thailand?

opinion May 14, 2014 00:00

By Karim Raslan
The Star
Asia N

The happiest day of my life was when I stopped practising as a lawyer. Of course, some would argue that journalism is infinitely grubbier as a profession.

However – at least in Southeast Asia – the law has become a moral quagmire, especially when it overlaps with politics.
Elites seem to have forgotten that the “rule of law” is not the same thing as “rule by law”.
This has been amply demonstrated by Yingluck Shinawatra’s ouster as prime minister by the Kingdom’s Constitutional Court.
Yingluck (sister of the royalists’ bogeyman Thaksin) was accused of “abuse of power”.
Her offence? Replacing the secretary-general of the National Security Council, Thawil Pliensri, with a relative back in 2011.
Earlier this year, the same court nullified the results of the general election held in February.
Yingluck has also been hit by corruption allegations over her government’s controversial rice-buying scheme and could end up with a five-year ban from politics.
Yingluck’s predicament has further divided her already fractious nation.
Critics were delighted, supporters outraged and millions more worried over the country’s future, especially as Thailand’s central bank slashed economic growth forecasts from 3 per cent to 2.7 per cent.
The Constitutional Court (originally set up in 1997) has been incredibly controversial.
It is alleged that many of its decisions – such as dissolving Thaksin’s original “Thai Rak Thai” party in 2007 and removing his successor Samak Sundaravej from the premiership in 2008 – are biased towards Thailand’s royalist establishment.
This has led to accusations by Thaksin’s camp that the Constitutional Court is a mere tool for his rivals to make up for their inability to win at the ballot box.
Or perhaps I am being uncharitable.
Could it be that the justices of the Constitutional Court are noble beings, acting beyond fear and favour? Perhaps they pondered long and hard and came to the conclusion that the cause of justice could only be served by Yingluck’s removal.
Perhaps, but judicial activism – a growing trend in Thailand – is still a risky and dangerous affair.
There’s a reason why justice is supposed to be blind. People lose respect for the courts when judicial decisions are seen to be influenced by political considerations.
No one is denying that a strong and independent judiciary is essential for any democracy.
Call me old-fashioned, however, but I didn’t realise that it was the business of judges to arbitrarily remove or appoint politicians.
“Checks and balances” are important. But so is “separation of powers”.
As unsavoury as some of the successive Thaksinite governments have been, the fact remains that they were all democratically elected.
The way they were removed sets a bad precedent. The injury that has been done to the Thai body politic is more than just offended senses of fair play.
It has suggested to ordinary Thais – rightly or wrongly – that no public institutions are sacred, that everything and everyone can be manipulated if Bangkok’s courtiers demand it.
Countries are only strong if their people believe in the various organs of their state. There’s no telling how much damage has been done to the faith ordinary Thais have in their constitutional settlement.
Moreover, by being seen to abuse the courts for political ends, Thailand’s establishment has ceded the moral high ground.
Having been repeatedly removed in an unjust manner, the Shinawatras’ many failings have now been magically forgotten in the minds of the masses.
Furthermore, the bankruptcy of their rivals in terms of policies stands exposed.
Why should anyone vote for parties that have to resort to hauling their rivals to court rather than debating them?
I want to be optimistic about Thailand’s future but the odds don’t look good.