In a landmark decision in Thailand, a criminal court has sentenced the wife of the former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shianwatra, to three years jail for tax evasion. The decision marks a major step in the Thai judiciary’s role in dealing with the country’s political crisis and corruption charges against Thaksin’s former government.
Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra
The criminal court’s verdict against Pojaman Shinawatra, wife of Thaksin, was broadcast nationally through the court’s closed circuit television. The judge said Pojaman, her brother in law and secretary were found guilty of tax evasion linked to the transfer of shares from the family’s communications company, Shin Corp in 1997 and sentenced to jail terms of up to three years. The three were released on bail pending an appeal.
Attending the court Thursday was Thaksin and the three adult children looking tense and grim-faced through the verdict. The judge said the three were of high economic and social status and should be setting an example to society.
Other corruption cases
The verdict is one of several cases now before the courts or in the final stage of preparation as a result of investigations that were carried after a military coup in September 2006 ousted Thaksin and his government, accused of abuse of power and corruption.
Other cases now before the courts include the purchase of state-controlled land by Pojaman at a third of its valuation while Thaksin was prime minister. This week the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of a $ 120 million loan to Myanmar’s military government allegedly designed to benefit Thaksin’s communications company.
A new era of transparency
Panitan Wattanaygorn, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, says the verdict marks a new trend in prosecuting public officials accused of corruption. He says that if the case proceeds successfully and legally, and if the accused are convicted, it will be the beginning of transparency, legitimacy and counter corruption efforts in Thailand.
“We see this process being done in many more stable democracies, new democracies like in Taiwan and South Korea. And a lot of people in Thailand are hoping the same phenomenon is taking place in Thailand,” says Panitan.
But Panitan says the stakes are high. If the judiciary fails to solve the present political crisis there may be the threat of military intervention or street protests due an absence of the rule of law.
Making public aware
Thailand’s Auditor General, Jaruvan Maintaka, a member of the assets examination committee that investigated the case against Pojaman, says the public need to be aware of people in public office.
“From now on Thailand, the Thai people will begin to learn, to know they have the right to tell those who want to come in as politician that they should watch out, that they will be examined thoroughly by the auditor general or the anti-corruption committee,” says Jaruvan.
Judiciary’s crucial role
But Thaksin continues to be a powerful political figure in Thailand. He remains influential within the urban and rural poor through populist policies adopted when in he was power. The current government under Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has been accused of acting as a nominee for Thaksin.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, says the judiciary is playing a role in the conflict between Thaksin’s supporters and Thailand’s political establishment. “It’s a fierce battle between the Establishment comprising the military, the bureaucracy and the monarchy. The bureaucracy is driving the judiciary and Thaksin and his allies in such a way that has not been seen before,” says Thitinan.
But other analysts say the courts’ growing role also reflects a maturing of Thailand’s political culture and a move away from the past. They say it reflects a more pluralistic and rules-based society with Thailand reflecting more mature new democracies in Asia.