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NEWS WATCH: Thailand Elections Declared “Illegal”; Country Bracing For More Turmoil

Thursday, 29 June 2006

BosNewsLife Senior Asia Correspondent

By Richard S. Ehrlich,

BANGKOK, THAILAND (BosNewsLife)– Thailand, a base for foreign Christian missionaries working in Southeast Asia, was heading towards more turmoil Thursday, June 29, shortly after its shaky government suffered a devastating decision by the attorney-general’s office which ruled that recent parliamentary elections violated local legislation.

It said that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s party, and the biggest opposition party, “both violated the law” and should be dissolved. The tensions came amid calls for clear political leadership as suspected Muslim separatists in Thailand’s deep South killed up to eight people in recent days, reviving fears of a new wide spread conflict in the region where roughly 1,300 people died since 2004.

Thaksin– clinging to power despite the past few months of anti-Thaksin street protests, an election boycott, and widespread condemnation by the country’s media — responded by insisting his party was innocent. Thaksin hopes to contest a national election on October 15, despite loud complaints that he did not pay profit taxes on his family’s multi-billion dollar telecommunications deal with Singapore .

The attorney-general’s office, however, declared that Thaksin’s nationalistic Thai Rak Thai or ‘Thais Love Thais’ party — plus the main opposition Democrat Party and three tiny parties — acted illegally during a flawed April election, which was later invalidated.

“The committee has voted unanimously to forward, to the attorney-general, a ecommendation to ask the Constitution Court to dissolve the five political parties altogether,” Attorney-General Office spokesman Atthapol Yaisawang said.

ALLEGED WRONGDOING

“Their alleged wrongdoing might have been on different occasions, but they violated the law,” Attaphol said after the decision by an 11-member, fact-finding panel headed by Deputy Attorney-General Chaikasem Nitisiri. “The party has confidence in its innocence,” Prime Minister Thaksin responded, clearly shaken by the latest threat to his populist, pro-American party which he built from scratch into a crushing political machine.

“As a legal entity, this party has never made a decision that is immoral,” Thaksin aded.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva also claimed innocence. “We know what we are fighting against, and we know it isn’t easy,” he stressed after the prosecutors’ announcement, adding that his supporters “ill fight and maintain righteousness.”

If Attorney-General Pachara Yutithamdamrong endorses his committee’s unanimous decision, the case would go to the Constitution Court to rule if the parties should be dissolved for violating Article 66 of the Political Party Act. Article 66 forbids parties from “subverting the democratic system,” “acquiring executive power by unconstitutional means,” or threatening “national security, public order, or ethics and morality.”

POLITICIANS BANNED?

If convicted, the parties’ leaders and other top members could be blocked from holding party executive posts for five years. They could still be candidates for Parliament, however, and run the government as politicians by switching to other parties, creating new parties, or as independents — which could mean Thaksin will remain prime minister.

The problem dates back to before the ill-fated April 2 nationwide poll, which Thaksin’s party won. Predicting they would lose, the opposition Democrat Party spent much of March snarling Bangkok’s streets with peaceful, mass demonstrations demanding people “vote no” instead of endorsing candidates.

They claimed Thaksin staged the election to dodge complaints that he did not pay taxes on the 1.8 billion U.S. dollars profit his family pocketed when they sold their Shin Corp. telecommunications empire in February to the Singapore government’s investment wing, Temasek Holdings.

Under Thai law, Thaksin’s candidates would not be able to sit in Parliament if the “no vote” boycott was successful, because unopposed candidates must nab at least 20 percent of a constituency’s votes. If an unchallenged candidate fails to gain 20 percent, that Parliament seat remains vacant, and fresh polling must be held.

“VOTE NO”

The boycott was meant to deprive Parliament of its required 500 members, and end Thaksin’s reign. Opposition parties told Thais to “vote no” instead of avoiding the polls, because voting is required. But the “vote no” boycott, and the Democrats’ spurned demand for the king to appoint an unelected prime minister, violated the election, according to the attorney-general’s office.

Meanwhile, to circumvent the boycott, Thaksin’s party allegedly paid several small parties to run in the election — even though the obscure parties would lose. The illegal ploy was to give the appearance of a contested vote, and allow Thaksin’s otherwise unopposed candidates to claim legitimacy, the attorney-general’s office said.

“If Thai Rak Thai is to be accused of hiring small parties to contest the April 2 elections, you need uncontestable evidence and proof beyond a shred of doubt that the party leader [Thaksin] was involved or, in writing, asked someone to hire the parties for him, and we understand there is none,” said a Thai Rak Thai leader, Kuthep Saikrachang.

Thaksin came to power in 2001, and was re-elected in February 2005 with 19 million votes. Before the April 2 election, Thaksin’s party held 375 of Parliament’s 500 seats.

RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE

It is unclear whether the latest row will be a distraction for the prime minister from troubles in Thailand’s southern province of Yala where suspected Muslim separatists since killed up to eight people since Tuesday, June 27, including five Thai security personnel, after blowing up their pickup truck as it was escorting teachers to school, police and other sources said.

Militants are thought to target schools and teachers because they represent an educational system based on Thai Buddhist culture and curriculum in a largely Muslim, ethnically Malay region.

Intelligence officials have expressed concern that some Muslim militants, perhaps backed by international terror groups, could also target Christian churches, although Christians are a tiny minority, comprising about 0.7% of the mainly Buddhist population of nearly 65 million, BosNewsLife learned.

Tuesday’s attack in Raman district of Yala, 760 kilometers (475 miles) south of Bangkok , was accompanied by separate violence elsewhere in the region.

GUNNED DOWN

In neighboring Narathiwat province, a grocery store owner and a village defense volunteer were shot dead in Rangae district in separate drive-by attacks blamed on Muslim rebels, Thai media reported.

The previous night, a local defense volunteer was reportedly gunned down and killed shortly after he finished his shift guarding the province’s Rueso district train station.

Prime Minister Thaksin made clear to reporters he had urged local authorities in Thailand’s deep South to deal with the situation, while he fights a political battle closer to home. The region once comprised the Islamic Sultanate of Pattani, before the region was conquered by Bangkok in 1786 and finally put under the rule of the Thai bureaucracy in 1902.

Experts say the separatist struggle has been fuelled by the ethnic-Malay Muslims’ sense of religious and cultural alienation from the predominantly Buddhist Thai state.