(English)
THAILAND IN 2008

Introduction
Politics occupied front page in Thailand in 2008. This was the year of the pro-Thaksin group which won the post-coup election and held power through 2 prime ministers. The main player against them was the judiciary who has been taking an active role against corruption, fraud and abuse, be they perpetrated by government, politicians or prime ministers. Legal issues dominated intense political background, while strong and varied economic stimulants were introduced in response to worldwide financial crisis. Underlying it all is a trend towards greater protection for vulnerable groups: workers, trafficked women and children and the disabled. All of which pushed southern violence off the front page, which unfortunately, still continues.

The Government and the Court
The September 2006 coup, the installation of an appointed government, and the successful passage of a new (2007) Constitution were completed in just 11 months. A General Election was held on 23rd December 2007. Palang Prachachon or People Power Party (PPP) (the old Thai Rak Thai Party) won with 233 MPs to form a coalition government with Chart Thai, Puae Pandin, Ruam Jai Thai Chart Patana, Machima-Thipatai and Pracharaj. The Democrat was the lone opposition party.

By the end of January, Samak Sundaravej, leader of PPP became the 25th Prime Minister. However, five months later, he and 7 Cabinet members successfully fought off a motion of no confidence; unsurprisingly, since the government had 280 votes against the Democrats with 165. In August, the Prime Minister reshuffled his Cabinet; 5 members were not re-appointed.

The Governments attempt to amend the Constitution only a few months into office as against the campaign pledge of 3rd year of term added fuel to the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) anti-government protest started on 25th May. The State Enterprises Union joined in and on 26th August, the demonstrators surrounded Government House. The whole compound has been completely occupied by them from that time. The demonstrators called for the Prime Ministers resignation for being a (self-avowed) nominee of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They also called for a new democracy.

At the end of August, on a governments petition, the Court issued warrants for the arrest of 9 PAD leaders on treason charges. The next day, the first clash between police and PAD demonstrators started. Parliament held a special session to try to resolve the problem, recommending dissolution. This was ignored. Thousands of pro-Thaksin supporters from the provinces gathering in Saman Luang, broke police barricade and headed towards Government House at midnight on 1st September. They clashed with PADs guards, causing one death and many injuries. The Government declared a state of emergency and appointed General Anupong Paochida, Head of the Army, in charge.

While this was going on, the recently re-constituted Constitutional Court ruled that the Prime Minister, by hosting a regular TV cooking show, breached Constitutional provisions against outside employment while in office. The Prime Minister resigned. Subsequently, the Court of Criminal Appeal reaffirmed the Criminal Court of First Instances sentence of an immediate two-year jail on the former Prime Minister. This arose out a defamation case when during a TV program; Samak accused a former Bangkok Metropolitan Authority deputy governor of corruption.

The ruling coalition nominated Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksins brother-in-law, as the 26th Prime Minister. He immediately lifted the state of emergency, but PAD remained in Government House. The Government avoided confrontation by using the old Don Muang Airport as temporary offices. Every social sector tried to find solutions to the political crisis.

On 7th October, police tried to disperse PAD demonstrators in front of Parliament and Police HQ; they fired tear gas into the crowd, causing 2 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Unknown parties attacked PAD at night with war arms during their occupation of Government House. On 24th November, PAD escalated the confrontation when they moved to occupy Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi airports. The resulting closure caused enormous lost to the country. PM Somchai declared a state of emergency again. However, like a deus ex machina, the Constitutional Court handed down a decision which dissolved the ruling coalition parties of PPP, Chart Thai and Matchimatipatai. With the pro-Thaksin parties gone, PAD unconditionally withdrew its occupation of government properties.

The Courts dissolution of the governing coalition parties on 2nd December was the culmination of electoral fraud cases arising out of the General Election at the end of 2007. Three of these were against candidates from PPP, Chart Thai and Matchimatipatai. Yongyut Tiyapairat, PPP deputy leader, party-list MP from Chiangrai and President of the House of Representatives, was found guilty of electoral fraud by giving money to village elders in his province. He was disqualified by the Election Commission, and the Supreme Court for Political Position Holders found him guilty and stripped him of electoral rights for 5 years.

At the same time, members of the Election Commission unanimously voted to dissolve the governing PPP. The Constitutional Court agreed. PPP was dissolved and party executives were stripped of political rights for 5 years. The other two parties received similar sentence and dissolution. A total of 109 executive members from 3 parties, including 29 MPs were purged of political rights. The remaining 213 MPs from the dissolved parties have to find new parties within 60 days in order to retain their seats.

Thaksins legal cases

While the country suffered violent clashes between pro and anti-Thaksin groups, investigations into and cases against the former Prime Minister continue. For example, an independent panel exonerated him and his government of a policy of extra-judicial killing of drug suspects, but he was being investigated on corruption and malfeasance charges by the Assets Examination Commission (AEC). On 28th February, Thaksin decided to return to Thailand, following a 17 month-exile started by the September 2006 coup. He hoped to prove his innocence and to redeem his tarnished reputation; he also announced he would stay out of politics.

On 31st March, however, the AEC unanimously found Thaksin Shinawatra guilty of conducting the countrys foreign affairs for personal gain over the EXIM Bank 4,000 million baht loan to the Myanmar government.

In addition, the AEC General Assembly found that Thaksin abused his authority by granting benefits to his family conglomerate in connection with the telecom concession. The AEC also filed charges to the Criminal Division for Persons Holding Political Positions of the Supreme Court, under article 80 of the Anti-Corruption Act of 1999, in order to seize 76 billion baht that the Shinawatra family received for selling its business to Singapores Termasek.

In defense, the 47 defendants from the Thaksin Administration and the Lottery Committee petitioned the Constitutional Court to consider the legitimacy of the AEC. In May, the full Constitutional Court of 9 members unanimously decided the AEC was a legitimate body.

In the following month, 3 lawyers representing Thaksin were charged with bribery after they were reported for offering two million baht cash to a court official. They were convicted to an immediate 6 month-prison term.

On 31st July, the Court found Thaksins wife, Khunying Pojaman, and 2 other defendants guilty of tax avoidance in the sale of Shin Corporation. They were sentenced to 3-year jail. A few days later, Thaksin and his wife fled the country.

On 21st October, the Criminal Division for Persons Holding Political Positions of the Supreme Court sentenced Thaksin Shinawatra to 2-year jail on grounds that he, being a state official (then Prime Minister), violated the Counter Corruption Act by facilitating his wife to purchase a 33 rai plot of land, at a discount price, from a state agency. His wife, not being a state official, did not offend against the law and was acquitted.

The fugitive couple resided in England until their visas were revoked by the British Government in November. The Home Office Minister, Jackie Smith, announced that this was due to their criminal convictions.


Other legal cases

From material gathered in the USA and in Thailand, the AEC found evidence of corruption in the purchase of CTX 9000 bomb scanners and baggage conveyor system for Suvarnabhumi Airport. The corruption is estimated to cost the state approximately 1,700 million baht.

The AEC also nullified the Memorandum of Understanding signed in 2004 between the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) and Styer Co. Ltd. for the purchase of fire trucks. They resolved to charge six people, including former BMA Governor Samak Sundaravej and current Governor Apirak Kosayodhi for involvement in the purchase.

Apirak Kosayodhin only won his 2nd term as governor in September, and was only one month into this term when he resigned following the National Counter Corruption Commissions finding of his guilt. Apiraks involvement took place shortly after the start of his first term when he ordered a Letter of Credit to be opened following a signing of the contract by his predecessor, Samak Sundaravej. After Apiraks resignation, the BMA announced a new gubernatorial election on 11th January 2009.

The Economy

In order to stimulate economic growth, the Cabinet approved a lump-sum annual bonus to all state officials in March. The Defense Ministrys annual budget was also increased from 1.5 to 1.8 percent of GDP and lower rank state officials, levels 1 - 5, also got a special monthly assistance.

In April, the Cabinet agreed to release 2.1 million ton of rice from government stock, in order to alleviate rice shortage in the domestic market. Small packages for retail were to be offered at 20 percent below market price, but the program was cancelled before launch.

The Cabinet also approved a developmental budget of 35 billion baht to stimulate economic, social, natural and environmental resources in the provinces. All provinces are to become self-planning-self-budgeting, in compliance with Constitutional provisions.

In May, the Budget for 2009 was approved at 1,835 trillion baht or 18.2% of GDP and 10.5% higher than 2008. Revenue is estimated at 1,585.5 trillion, and a deficit of 249,500 million baht is expected. The Education Ministry received the biggest allocation of 330 billion or 18 percent of the total.

The National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) announced that the national economy was growing at the rate of 6% in the first quarter. The Public Debts Office announced that total public debts were 3,408, trillion baht, or 36.22 percent of GDP. In view of global financial crisis, public debt might rise to 38-40 percent of GDP which could seriously affect the 2009 budget.

The National Statistics Bureau announced that in 2007, in a study of 52,000 households, 63.3 percent had an average debt of 116,681 baht which was a 1.1 percent reduction from the previous year.

The Deposit Insurance Agency Act was enacted to reduce government guarantee on bank deposits. Instead, the Deposit Insurance Agency is to protect bank customers by monitoring banking status and performance. There will be a Deposit Insurance Fund, paid for by the government and commercial banks.

Medical allowance for Thai citizens holding Gold Card increased to an average of 2,194 baht. Payment for accident or long-term illness is increased to 300,000 baht, basic medical payment per employee is increased to 45,000 baht and daily hospitable allowance is increased to 1300 baht.

Personal and business income taxes were waived, reduced or reformulated to promote charitable organizations and disabled persons. Moreover, income tax threshold was increased from 100,000 to 150,000 baht.

In June, duties and taxes on NGV and E85 engine vehicles and spare parts were waived. More incentives were announced later to spur the use of E85 gasoline, a formulation with 85 percent ethanol content. Another energy conservation project was to launch 6,000 NGV buses in Bangkok Metropolitan area. The Cabinet later reduced this to 4,000 to save total cost. However, since the ruling parties dissolution on 3rd December, the caretaker government has no authority to further any project.

Soaring petroleum prices in three quarters of 2008 forced the government to implement measures to reduce financial burden including maintaining LPG price for domestic consumption and subsidizing water and electricity use by small households.

VAT of 7 percent was extended another two years until 30th September 2010.

Alcohol and Tobacco Acts were also being amended to improve collection of revenue.

Extending workers rights

Taxi drivers are to be included into social security scheme. With a payment of 3,600 baht annually, applicants could receive maternity, disability and death benefits.

The Labour Act B.E. 2551 (2008) extended workers rights in the following ways: daily-waged workers are to have the same rights as those on contract, victims of sexual harassment can sue in labour and criminal courts, temporary-closed businesses must pay a 75 percent compensation to employees, a demand from employees for a guarantee fund against damages is prohibited and employers must give a 30-day notice upon relocation with employees being compensated as if laid-off, if not relocating.

Redundancy period is extended from 180 to 220 days.

The Office of Teaching Civil Servants and Teaching Personnel is allowed to stop local offices if they contravene regulations.

Other public policies

In May, the government initiated a conservation campaign by keeping room temperature in offices at 25-26 degrees Celsius, wearing no jacket in meetings, and a speed limit of 90 km/hour.

Three universities: King Mongkuts Institute of Technology Lard Krabang, Chiangmai University and Chulalongkorn University became autonomous. Workers there would receive additional pay.

The Royal Thai Police is to be restructured to increase efficiency.

In May, a draft Bill on Probation set out a Probation Committee, the remit of probation officers powers and the principle of reconciliation justice. Funds would also be allocated for crime prevention and rehabilitation.

The Protection and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act B.E. 2551 (2008) which came into force in June increased the penalty for a person or persons gaining benefit from prostitution, production or distribution of pornography, slavery, forced labour, begging, trade in forcibly acquired human organs, and all kinds of forced services, regardless of victims consent. Politicians and state officials get double penalty, and those working under the statute are liable to treble penalty, if found guilty.

From 4th June, Thai women can chose to be styled, Miss or Mrs and they can use their own or their husbands surname after marriage. After divorced, they can also revert to Miss.

The Institute of Demographic and Social Research revealed that female population currently outnumbers male by 870,000 and the imbalance is expected to increase. Gender imbalance will affect mating as there will be more single women and more late marriages. The current population growth rate is 1.5 percent, which is lower than the required replacement rate of 2 percent.

Every Thai citizen will to be required to have an ID card from birth.

Community radio stations are to be licensed for the first time under the National Broadcasting Act B.E. 2551 (2008).

Thailands first non-commercial public television station, TPBS (Thai Public Broadcasting Service), was started with subsidy from liquor and tobacco excise tax.

The governments approval of the Thai-Cambodian communiqué supporting Cambodias application for Preah Vihear Temple to be added to UNESCOs World Heritage list became controversial. The Administrative Court granted an interim injunction pending final order prohibiting the Cabinet from any further action.

Southern unrest:

The State of Emergency in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat was extended and also enforced in some districts of Songkhla Province.

A 50 billion baht budget was allocated to develop these southern provinces between 2008 and 2011.

Despite every measure to resolve the unrest, minor violence occurred daily. The most serious was a motor-cycle bomb which exploded in front of a police station in Su-ngai Kolok District, Narathiwat Province, killing a few and injuring about 20.

Conclusion

Judicial decisions against the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and his supporting group of politicians alternate with violent clashes between his supporters and detractors illustrate the negative effect one powerful rich man can have on the whole country. Nevertheless, continuing strong economic stimulants, extending rights to and protection of vulnerable groups, decentralizing power and resources to the provinces, in so much as these were introduced by his party, can also illustrate the positive effect of the same person.
 


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