The convictions of three ministers do not augur well for the ruling coalition led by Thai Prime Minister Prayut. It also sets a precedent for pro-democracy protestors who have been detained - invoking one’s constitutional right to justify unlawful protest activities is an invalid legal defence.
On 24 February, Thailand’s Criminal Court convicted Suthep Thaugsuban, leader of the now defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), and 24 of his colleagues for crimes committed during their 7-month protests against the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the 2013-14 period.
The PRDC was a right-wing political pressure group which sought to eradicate the influence of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra – the elder brother of Yingluck. In all, the convictions could destabilise the 19-party coalition underpinning the government of Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha.
Prayut must now fill the cabinet posts left vacant with the convictions of three of his ministers. Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan was given a jail term of 6 years and 16 months for his involvement in the PDRC’s unlawful activities, including blocking polling stations and scuttling the February 2014 general election. Digital Economy and Society Minister Buddhipongse Punnakanta received a 7-year jail term. And Deputy Transport Minister Thaworn Senneam was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment. Nataphol and Buddhipongse belong to the Phalang Pracharat Party (PPRP), which leads the coalition backing Prayut. Thaworn is a deputy leader of the Democrat Party, which is also part of the ruling coalition.
Infighting for the PPRP’s two ministerial posts will be fierce. Several senior figures in the party are unhappy with their current posts. Prayut has twice passed over Deputy Finance Minister Santi Promphat and had chosen outsiders to serve as finance minister, for example. Moreover, 13 PPRP MPs from six southern provinces are demanding at least one cabinet post for any senior MP in their group.
At the same time, the Democrat Party is facing the possibility of losing a deputy ministerial post as a result of the conviction of Thaworn, and two other Democrat Party MPs who were PDRC leader Suthep’s assistants. The party now has 49 MPs, down from 53 at the start of the Prayut administration in June 2019. At that time, the Bhumjaithai had 51 MPs. These two parties were each given eight cabinet posts in the government: one deputy premiership, three ministerial posts and four deputy ministerial posts.
However, one MP expelled from the Future Forward Party (FFP) joined the Bhumjaithai in December 2019. After the FFP was disbanded in February 2020, another nine of its MPs joined Bhumjaithai. As a result, the second largest government party now has 61 MPs and, it believes, a claim to additional cabinet posts.
Waiting anxiously on the sidelines to fill a cabinet post is the Thai Local Power Party, which now has 5 MPs — including two originally elected as members of the FFP. Two other coalition parties, both with five MPs, now hold one ministerial post each. The Action Coalition for Thailand Party holds the post of Minister of Higher Education, and the Chart Phatthana Party has one minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Ten other smaller parties with a total of 11 MPs also want at least one cabinet post for their group, which they contend actually deserves two cabinet posts. For Prayut to ignore the grievances of these parties could trigger a revolt and defections.
Prayut’s problems do not end here. Last November, MP Mongkolkit Suksintharanon, leader of and sole MP from one micro party, the Thai Civilised Party, left the ruling coalition to become an independent opposition member. He claimed that leaders of some other micro government parties might soon defect, because they felt that they had not been given any meaningful role to play in the government.
Losing the support of these micro parties might not seriously hurt General Prayut, who does not belong to any party. But it could further weaken the ruling coalition, which had 275 MPs in the 487-member House of Representatives when it comfortably defeated the opposition in the no-confidence debate against the prime minister and nine ministers held during16-20 February.
Setting a Grim Precedent
The convictions of the PDRC activists have another significant implication for Thai politics. The Criminal Court’s verdict holds that no one may claim a constitutional right to break the law if in so doing, the act is unlawful. This will have direct bearing on several “Three Fingers” pro-democracy protest leaders now facing lèse majesté and other criminal charges. These protest leaders have contended that they have the constitutional right to organise peaceful protest rallies to demand the resignation of the prime minister, a new and genuinely democratic constitution, and reform of the monarchy.
The Criminal Court’s verdict holds that no one may claim a constitutional right to break the law if in so doing, the act is unlawful. This will have direct bearing on several “Three Fingers” pro-democracy protest leaders now facing lèse majesté and other criminal charges.
At least four of the protest leaders have been denied bail and sent to prison for temporary detention while awaiting trial on lèse majesté and other criminal charges. Other protest leaders summoned to acknowledge similar charges may also be denied bail. This has triggered yet another wave of flash mobs in Bangkok to protest the alleged abuses of law enforcement, and to demand the immediate release of all detained protest leaders.
The “Three Fingers” protest leaders awaiting trial face grim prospects in court. Conviction for each lèse majesté charge brings a jail term ranging from three to 15 years. For them, the convictions of the PDRC activists have set a precedent, and also illustrates one thing: invoking one’s constitutional right to justify protest activities that are unlawful is an invalid defence.
In handing down the anti-Yingluck activists’ convictions, the Criminal Court may be signalling its determination to ensure the rule of law. This is in the face of continuous accusations that Thailand suffers from an abuse of power through the Prayut administration’s “rule by law”, grounded in the country’s problematic military-drafted constitution. Put simply, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.
Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Senior Fellow and Acting Coordinator of the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.