BANGKOK, (Reuters) – A Thai court found Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra guilty of violating the constitution today and said she must step down, prolonging a political crisis that has led to violent protests and brought the economy close to recession.
The decision is bound to anger supporters of Yingluck, but the court did allow ministers not implicated in the case against her to stay in office, a move that could take some of the sting out of any backlash on the streets. After the ruling, the cabinet said Commerce Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongphaisan, who is also a deputy prime minister, would replace Yingluck, and the caretaker government would press ahead with plans for a July 20 election.
Yingluck, who faced six months of sometimes deadly protests in the capital, Bangkok, aimed at toppling her government, thanked the Thai people in a televised news conference. “Throughout my time as prime minister I have given my all to my work for the benefit of my countrymen … I have never committed any unlawful acts as I have been accused of doing,” Yingluck said, smiling and outwardly upbeat. “From now on, no matter what situation I am in, I will walk on the path of democracy. I am sad that I will not be able to serve you after this.” Despite her removal from power, there is no obvious end in sight to the turmoil in Thailand, with protesters still pushing for political reforms before new elections.
The judge who delivered the verdict at the Constitutional Court said Yingluck had abused her position by transferring a security chief to another post in 2011 so that a relative could benefit from subsequent job moves. “The accused was involved in the transfer of Thawil Pliensri from his position as National Security Council head,” the judge said, adding that this was done so that Priewpan Damapong, a relative, could “gain a new position”. “The accused acted for her own political benefit … The transfer wasn’t done for the benefit of the country,” he added. Yingluck, a businesswoman until entering politics to lead her party to victory in a 2011 election, denied wrongdoing in court on Tuesday. She was not present on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear if she could appeal or if she faced a ban on participation in politics and other penalties.
COURTS ACCUSED OF BIAS
Thailand’s drawn-out political crisis broadly pits Bangkok’s middle class and royalist establishment against mainly poor, rural supporters of Yingluck and her brother, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. He was ousted by the military in 2006 and lives in exile to avoid a jail sentence handed down in 2008 for abuse of power. Yingluck’s supporters accuse the Constitutional Court of bias in frequently ruling against governments loyal to Thaksin. In 2008, the court forced two prime ministers linked to Thaksin from office. Some legal experts had expected the court to remove her entire government. Instead, it ruled that nine ministers linked to the case should step down but others could remain, leaving Yingluck’s ruling party in charge of a caretaker government. “We were bracing ourselves for this verdict. Everything our enemies do is to cripple the democratic process,” said Jatuporn Prompan, the leader of pro-Shinawatra “red shirt” activists. “The court chose a middle way today.” Asked about a vow to resist Yingluck’s removal that had raised fears of violence between rival factions, Jatuporn replied: “There is no reason why we should take up arms. We will rally peacefully as planned on May 10.”
In Thailand the prime minister is normally elected by the lower house of parliament, but that was dissolved in December when Yingluck called a snap election to try to defuse protests. From that point, she headed a caretaker administration with limited powers. The election in February was disrupted and later declared void by the Constitutional Court. Yingluck and the Election Commission agreed last week that a new ballot should be held on July 20, but that date has not been formally approved and it is bound to be opposed again by protesters.
PROTESTS WILL GO ON
Thaksin or his loyalists have won every election since 2001 and would probably win again. The former telecoms tycoon won huge support in rural areas and among the urban poor with populist policies such as cheap healthcare and loans. But his enemies say he is a corrupt crony capitalist who harbours republican sympathies, which he denies. The anti-government protesters say they want to end Thaksin’s influence over politics, which is considerable despite him being based abroad, and are demanding reform of the electoral system before new polls. When they failed to achieve their aims in the street, Yingluck’s opponents turned to legal challenges to remove her.
A leader of the anti-government protesters, who are based in a central Bangkok park, welcomed the court’s decision to remove Yingluck but said their campaign would go on. “Of course, there is celebration here today but we still have not completed our goals, which are reforms and a delayed general election,” said Samdin Lertbutr. “Even though she is gone, they are still the caretaker government,” Samdin told Reuters, adding that a big rally planned for May 14 would go ahead. Ongoing turmoil would make matters worse for Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy, already suffering from weak exports, a year-long slump in industrial output, a drop in tourism and a caretaker government with curtailed powers.
The army, which has staged numerous coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, has stayed out of the turmoil, as has King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The king, who is 86, has intervened to defuse previous crises but has not commented since this one blew up late last year. The divide between the poor and what they see as the establishment elite represents a collapse of a traditional order in Thailand at a time when people have begun to broach the hitherto taboo topic of succession. Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn does not command the same devotion as his father, the world’s longest-reigning monarch.