Thai Court Clears PM Prayuth of Conflict of Interest over Military Housing

Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Kunnawut Boonreak
Thai Court Clears PM Prayuth of Conflict of Interest over Military Housing Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha gestures to supporters in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima, Feb. 9, 2020.

Thailand’s nine-judge Constitutional Court unanimously cleared Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha on Wednesday of a complaint alleging that the former army chief breached ethics by living with his family at a barracks after he retired from the military.

The panel ruled that army regulations allow Prayuth to live rent-free at the barracks post-retirement and that the ex-junta chief, who led a military coup in 2014, could retain his dual posts as PM and defense minister. The court’s ruling cannot be appealed.

“The defendant stayed in the army’s housing and it paid the electricity and water bill. This is in line with the army’s rule of 2005,” Chief Judge Worawit Kangsasitiam announced while reading the verdict. “He did not seek personal gains more than the benefit of the country so it does not constitute a conflict of interest.”

Before the day was out, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators who for months have called for Prayuth to resign gathered at a Bangkok intersection to protest the verdict.

Meanwhile, Prayuth, who skipped the court hearing but was represented by an officer attached to the Office of Judge Advocate, Royal Thai Army, did not respond to reporters’ questions as he left parliament to return to his barracks home around 5 p.m.

Sompong Amornwiwat, a leader of the opposition Pheu Thai Party who represents Chiang Mai as an MP, brought the case against Prayuth to House Speaker Chuan Leekpai, who forwarded it to the Constitutional Court on March 9. Sompong questioned whether Prayuth could serve as prime minister while living in military housing after his retirement because conflicts of interest go against the Constitution.

After the verdict, Pheu Thai Secretary-General Prasert Janruangtong noted that it could not be appealed, but called on Prayuth to do the right thing. 

“The prime minister should present maturity and hold higher ethical standards than ordinary people – if not, people will still have questions,” Prasert said. “He can choose to continue staying there, but as prime minister and a political government official, Prayuth should follow the Constitution.”

A leader of another opposition party went a step further in his response to the verdict.

“Move Forward Party insists that Prayuth must quit even though the ruling let him free. If he steps down, it will stop the conflict and the society can return to a peaceful democratic environment,” secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon said. “We should keep an eye on this matter and earnestly push for a reform of independent entities and the army.”

The Pheu Thai Party is loyal to billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from the prime minister’s office in 2006 by a military coup, and his younger sister, Yingluck, who was removed by a coup led by Prayuth in 2014. The party was the second most popular in the 2019 general election, picking up 136 seats in Parliament.

Move Forward was established after a court disbanded the Future Forward Party – another opposition party led by billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit – over loans he made to the party leading up to last year’s election.

Pro-democracy protests

Also on Wednesday, Arnon Nampa, a leader of pro-democracy protesters, told thousands who gathered at the Lat Phrao intersection in Bangkok that the verdict means government officials will be able to receive benefits from other government offices without facing any penalty.

“I want to send this message to the judicial institutions, constitutional court and court of justice – we have reached the point where we have to use reason and have honest dialog,” Arnon said. “If our judicial system is not reliable, our country will break down. You have to show your honor and dignity.”

Since mid-July, pro-democracy protests have focused on three demands – that Prayuth resign, the constitution be rewritten and the monarchy be reformed. The prime minister announced last month that authorities would enforce all pertaining laws following shootings at a rally and another event where protesters sprayed paint on walls at police headquarters.

More recently, Arnon and about a dozen other protesters were summoned to face charges under the nation’s Lese-Majeste law, which criminalizes royal defamation with prison sentences of up to 15 years per offense.

Titipol Phakdeewanich, the dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, said the decision was expected. 

“The ruling reflects that there is a group in authority supporting Gen. Prayuth and he could very well stay until the end of his four-year term. The authority is holding on tightly for its own benefit, not for the country,” Titpol told BenarNews. “The result today may cause disagreement among the protesters, but it is not a breaking point.

“More people may show up at the rally but only in the short term. It will not have a long-term impact because it did not come as a surprise for them.”

Salai Bawi, a political analyst at Chiang Mai University, said Prayuth should understand that his role is leader of the civilian government. He compared Thailand to Myanmar.

“Prayuth should make it clear that he no longer has power in the military. If we compare to a similar situation in Myanmar where military power is involved in politics, there are clear regulations in that government,” he told BenarNews. “When the former Gen. U Thein Sein was elected president, he moved to government housing to prevent any accusation.”

Pro-democracy leader Arnon Nampa speaks to thousands in Bangkok who protested a court ruling that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha did not breach ethics rules, Dec. 2, 2020. [Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews]
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