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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Thailand’s Prime Minister Defends Herself Against Charges

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra arrives at the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) in Nonthaburi province on March 31, 2014. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images)

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is pictured on March 31, 2014. (Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images)

A Thai court will issue a ruling tomorrow that could remove Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office, raising the possibility that the legal system could accomplish what protesters have been trying to do for six months through street demonstrations.

Yingluck defended herself today against abuse of power allegations in a key case that is one of several legal challenges that could force her from her job.

She is accused of abusing her authority by transferring her National Security Council chief in 2011 to another position. A group of anti-government senators, who lodged the case, say the transfer was to benefit Yingluck’s ruling party and violated the constitution.

The BBC’s Jonathan Head is in Bangkok and tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson that “most people think the verdict will go against her,” but “there’s no question that if she goes, the crisis will get worse.”

Guest

  • Jonathan Head, Southeast Asia correspondent for BBC News. He tweets @pakhead.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, tomorrow in Thailand, the Constitutional Court could do what months of street protests did not: It could remove Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office.

The BBC's Jonathan Head joins us from Bangkok. And, Jonathan, the prime minister defended herself before the court today. What was she accused of, and how is she fighting those charges?

JONATHAN HEAD: This is one of several legal cases that have been initiated against Prime Minister Yingluck since this political crisis started. This one refers to a transfer that she made of her national security adviser shortly after she was elected in 2011. He's actually a senior bureaucrat, was appointed by the previous administration, and he protested against it and claimed that the transfer was made to benefit members of her party and, indeed, people close to her family who would then get promoted.

The case lingered on for quite a long time, but one top court in Thailand found that the transfer was improperly done, earlier this year. The Constitutional Court now has to decide whether the prime minister also violated the constitution in making the transfer. That's what they're going to be ruling on. They've been hearing evidence for the last few weeks. The prime minister testified today, insisting she was only doing her duty to her policies and to the people.

It's very likely most people think the verdict will go against her. And her own supporters are extremely unhappy about many verdicts that the Constitutional Court has made, and verdicts that legal experts often find a bit baffling. They're convinced that this is just a ruse, a method that's being used by her opponents to get her out of office. And, indeed, if she's found guilty, she would automatically be barred from politics for five years. The court may also include many members of her Cabinet, all of whom are in a caretaker status because of the election that was not - that was annulled, that was not successfully held in February. So we don't have a full government yet.

But if they lose their posts, as well, we will in effect have no government at all and a political vacuum.

HOBSON: Well, and we should remind people that this comes at a time when there is a country, Thailand, that is really split, and many people have wanted to get Prime Minister Shinawatra out of office for many months now. There have been street protests. Some of them have been violent. Is it possible that she could really be removed by the court as soon as tomorrow?

HEAD: Absolutely. This is not the first time this has happened. When her happened was - its predecessor was in office about six years ago, the constitutional court managed to throw two governments out of office. One prime minister was deposed because he'd appeared in a cooking program. So you can see that the constitutional court's brief spreads very wide in Thailand. It goes a lot further than it would in the United States. It's why it's accused of being politically biased against this government, this party in particular.

All senior ranks of the judiciary tend to be very close to the royalist establishment and are viewed Ms. Yingluck's party as very partisan. So yes, they could remove her from office, and that would of course meet the demands of these protestors. The protestors have been trying to stir up a crisis. They've sabotaged an election. There have been clashes on the streets, a number of deaths, more than 20.

And yet the military did not want to mount an outright coup, although they were being urged to do so, because they know that would enrage Ms. Yingluck's very significant support base and could set off a very unpleasant reaction. Well, her supporters say that if the courts remove her on this pretext, the current case, they will view that as nothing less than a judicial coup, and they're still likely to come out very angry and in quite large numbers if this verdict goes against the prime minister.

HOBSON: So you'll just have angry people on the streets, but they'll be different angry people on the streets than were before.

HEAD: Yes, up to now, one of the most striking things about this division is though it's very bitter and emotional, the largely red-shirt supporters of the prime minister in her party have stayed away from Bangkok because that's where the anti-government movement is very strong and equally passionate. Had those two sides come together, we would have seen very significant bloodshed.

Now the question is will they stay away from Bangkok, will they come into Bangkok, will we see more assassinations, tit-for-tat killings, which is something we've seen a little of during this crisis? We don't know, but there's no question that if she goes, the crisis will get worse.

HOBSON: The BBC's Jonathan Head with the latest from Bangkok. Jonathan, thank you.

HEAD: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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