Ombudsman's office stands up and shows some claws
With a series of high-profile probes launched over the past year, many believe the Ombudsman's Office is a "sleeping giant" finally awoken, but only time will tell if the agency can truly work independently, in accordance with the spirit of the Constitution.The Ombudsman's Office has examined Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's ethics for skipping a House meeting during the Four Seasons Hotel controversy, to investigating the qualifications of PM's Office Minister Nalinee Taveesin and Deputy Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Natthawut Saikua.
Nalinee has been blacklisted by the US over alleged business deals with the regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, while Natthawut is a core red-shirt leader involved in the political violence in April-May 2010.
Credit should also go to the Ombudsman for the apparent about-turn in which the Foreign Ministry has been obliged to review its policy of issuing a Thai passport to ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra following the Ombudsman's recommendation.
If the Foreign Ministry refuses to revoke the passport it issued to the fugitive former leader last year, not only would Foreign Minister Surapong Towichukchaikul face the possibility of a court trial for malfeasance, but the Yingluck government could also be brought down by judicial activists, hoping to see history repeat itself.
The Ombudsman's office is one of several independent agencies established in 1999 under the 1997 Constitution. Of all the independent agencies created by this Constitution, the Ombudsman has been the least talked about, at one point even seen as so insignificant as to be at risk of disbandment.
But under management of Chief Ombudsman Panit Nitithanprapas, plus Ombudsman Prof Siracha Charoenpanij and Ombudsman Dr Pravich Rattanapian, the public has not only learnt more about the role and authority of this agency, it has also come to see the Ombudsmen do have claws and teeth.
Ombudsman's Office secretary-general Chalermsak Chantaratim said Thai society had become more aware of checks on officials and politicians' ethics, whereas before courts were the only institution seen by the public as checking lawbreakers. They did not know who the ombudsman was.
"Since the 2007 Constitution has empowered the Ombudsman with more authority to examine politicians and officials' ethics, the agency has helped complete the democratic process. We have carried out checks in a straightforward and righteous manner so the public has put more trust in us,'' he said.
New Politics Party leader Somsak Kosaisuk, who filed a complaint with the office over Thaksin's passport, said he chose to file the complaint with the Ombudsman because the agency had proven itself to be neutral and to make trustworthy decisions. "Whenever the Ombudsman makes a decision and politicians are upset to the point they threaten to disband the agency, we know we can trust the agency," he said.
Kanin Bunsuwan, a writer of the 1997 charter, said the Ombudsman is not short of "teeth and claws" - and they were "hidden" in the 2007 Constitution by the Council of National Security.
He said the 1997 Constitution allowed the ombudsman only to present their recommendations to Parliament, but the 2007 Constitution empowered it to summons and question officials.
"The Ombudsman's probes involve ethics, which is quite an abstract issue, so there has not been evidence and grounds to incriminate people,'' he said.
Many believe the Ombudsman's Office has walked the correct path,
but it will take more time for them to firmly establish itself as a truly independent agency that does not bow to political power.