Remembering Thai Dreams of Checks and Balances

Now is the time to remember ‘Magnificent 14’ – The Nation, July 15, 2011
…Those were the halcyon days for the “independent organisations” set up under the much-praised “People’s Constitution” of 1997. One year before the EC swept away many high-flying senator candidates, powerful Democrat secretary-general Sanan Kachornprasart was indicted and banished from politics for faking a Bt15 million debt while declaring his assets and liabilities as a political office holder…

[2017 note: Like many important English-language articles from the Thai press, this one is no longer accessible online. Here is the full text.]

Now is the time to remember ‘Magnificent 14’

Believe it or not, there was a time when the Election Commission acted tough against big name politicians and managed to elicit applause from the public.

It was in 2000, to be exact, when the whole nation commended the election commissioners and Constitution Court judges for being brave and politically unbiased, simply because they did not care who the big fish were. Those were the halcyon days for the “independent organisations” set up under the much-praised “People’s Constitution” of 1997.

One year before the EC swept away many high-flying senator candidates, powerful Democrat secretary-general Sanan Kachornprasart was indicted and banished from politics for faking a Bt15 million debt while declaring his assets and liabilities as a political office holder. At that time, it didn’t matter who you were. Election candidates belonging to the government side were disqualified for fun. Among them were Sanan’s wife, Newin Chidchob’s sister, provincial governors, influential military figures and close relatives of Cabinet members. You name it.

They were such a breath of fresh air that “The magnificent 14” – the nine members of the National Counter Corruption Commission and five election commissioners – were named The Nation’s “Persons of the Year” for the year 2000.

What happened after that? There’s no need to say.

The same “independent bodies” credited for Sanan’s shocking exit from politics and the fearless disqualification of powerful men running for office suddenly became worse than a paper tiger. They were accused of caving in to political pressure, of being biased in the government’s favour. Charges of bribery plagued them.

After the Constitution Court acquitted Thaksin Shinawatra of share concealment in a murky verdict in 2001, the slide down the slippery slope has been irreversible. Every decision by the Constitution Court, the NCCC, the EC, the Supreme Administrative Court, as well as the Supreme Court’s section for political office holders has been met with scepticism and criticism, and in many cases rightly so.

Who politicised the independent bodies and made them lose their integrity and credibility all at once? This is a question the new government must ponder very seriously. The Pheu Thai camp as well as its red-shirt supporters may believe that the country’s political crisis began when the yellow shirts took to the streets to try to dislodge a vastly popular government, leading to the military coup in 2006.

There are others, however, who believe that all the trouble began when the checks-and-balances mechanism began to unravel. There were a few voices of discontent when Sanan was banned from politics for something seemingly as trivial as a Bt15 million debt that was not there. But they were drowned out by the strong, optimistic belief that such harsh constitutional action was designed for a long-term impact.

In a political system so festered with graft, Sanan’s fate was meant to sound a serious warning and create real fear. It wasn’t to be, as we know. The old culture of “political elite” – the thinking that people in power should escape any tough scrutiny, let alone punishment hit back. The rest is history.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest sister, is facing an EC ruling. It’s too bad that this is an EC that has been transformed so much from the one that lashed out courageously and independently at any election candidate, no matter who the person was.

Life is probably being unfair to Yingluck, and she may want to ask her big brother why. It was not so long ago but so much has changed. A lot of people are saying that Thai politics is coming full circle, with the imminent return to power of the Thaksin camp. That the good old days before his time haven’t even been mentioned speaks volumes.

Also: 1996: Newin’s canvassers caught red handed in vote buying

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