Thai Rak Thai’s iron grip on power

EDITORIAL: Arrogance of power breeds discontent - The Nation, June 24, 2005

[Note from 2014: This article is apparently no longer online, so we are providing the full text as it provides a valuable account of the government's conduct during the Thai Rak Thai Party years. See also: Deserving of absolute loyalty--or else!]

Thai Rak Thai’s strict orders to its MPs show contempt for democracy; and the Senate isn’t doing anything about it

How much worse can it get for Thai politics? Although we expected an impenetrable Thai Rak Thai fortress in the wake of the February general election, we could not have anticipated such arrogance. The decision by the ruling party to virtually order all of its MPs to vote in support of embattled Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungreangkit in Monday’s censure debate without first listening to what the opposition has to say was an unprecedented show of contempt for Thailand’s democratic system. It is salt on the wounds of the Thai people, who have watched helplessly as the country’s checks-and-balances mechanisms have withered. And when we turned to the Senate as the last, though not very reliable, resort, the upper House said just what we had feared it would – “it’s not our business”.

This episode began with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s promise that Suriya would be dealt with “in accordance with evidence” and that the minister would never be wrongly protected. That pledge fell through when government whips resolved to make all Thai Rak Thai MPs vote for Suriya, although, in the words of a senior party member, “some of them may feel coerced”.

And then this sad state of affairs was compounded by the Senate’s shocking ambivalence. After having let the Thai people down time and time again, the upper House let an opportunity to redeem itself slip by. A bid by a group of senators to open an extraordinary session to scrutinise the government’s behaviour flopped after about half of the 200 members of the upper chamber refused to sign the motion.

Considering that this same Senate has gone to so much trouble to unseat the respected Auditor-General Jaruvan Maintaka and install the controversial Visut Montriwat as her replacement, the Thai people could be forgiven for slipping into despair. And just when it seemed the Senate’s behaviour couldn’t get any more baffling, some of its members suggested that it would be “redundant” for the Senate to censure the Thaksin administration given the no-confidence debate against Suriya set to take place in the House of Representatives on Monday. This from elected representatives who are supposed to at least know their basic duties before running, and whose salaries are paid with taxpayers’ money.

Parliament goes into recess on July 1, and the next parliamentary season in the latter half of the year will be strictly for legislative affairs. The current term of the Senate ends next March, with incumbent senators prohibited constitutionally from standing to retain their seats. This all means that the country’s first batch of elected senators has declined its chance to fulfil its constitutional role to act as a balancing force, and at a time when this is just what the country needs.

The Thai Rak Thai party’s controversial resolution to oblige its MPs to blindly support Suriya in connection with the Suvarnabhumi Airport scandal is representative of the sad state of Thai politics.

The independent bodies created by the Constitution to enforce transparency, good governance and checks and balances have either been infiltrated by the powers that be or have disgraced themselves with scandals like the National Counter Corruption Commission did when its members gave themselves pay rises.

The House of Representatives is so dominated by the government that the opposition cannot muster enough signatures to launch a graft-related censure motion against Cabinet members. We have a ruling party that tramples on democratic and parliamentary principles and a Senate that cannot be relied upon to do its duty.

What’s worse, there are signs that the Senate’s inaction is the result of more than ignorance or incompetence. Chachaoengsao Senator Boonlert Pairin claimed he had withdrawn his support for the censure motion because he had been asked by a “senior person” in his province who had helped campaign for his election to do so.

“I’m ready to face public condemnation but I really had to do it,” he said. “In addition, I’m facing three lawsuits, and I fear I might be persecuted. I have to save myself before I can help society.”

At least he had the guts to say this much. Such statements show that there’s much more to the Senate’s apolitical character than meets the eye. This isn’t earth-shattering news, anyone could have expected the shadow of the Thaksin empire to eventually fall over the upper House. What’s disheartening is that at a time when the system is faltering and raw courage is so badly needed, all we see is cowardice.
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