6 June 2024

Known as the Shinawatra family’s most trusted lawyer, Pichit Chuenban has now been appointed to the Pheu Thai-led government despite lingering doubts over his eligibility for political office.

Critics say the newly appointed Prime Minister’s Office minister does not meet constitutional requirements that lawmakers must have “evident integrity” and “no behavior that is a serious violation of or fails to comply with ethical standards”.

The charter also prohibits anyone who has received a prison sentence – except for negligence, petty offenses, or defamation – from becoming a minister.

The 65-year-old Pichit, who was given the job in this government’s first Cabinet reshuffle, argues that he is fit to serve as a minister despite being sent to prison for six months in 2008 for contempt of court.

He said this was not a criminal offense and insisted the sentence stemmed from a court order rather than a guilty verdict.

Pichit was among the 13 newly appointed Cabinet ministers sworn in before His Majesty the King on Friday evening in a ceremony led by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.

Overshadowed by prison sentence

In 2008, Pichit and two junior lawyers were representing former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a corruption case when they were charged with offering a cash bribe of 2 million baht concealed in a snack box to officials of the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions.

They were subsequently sentenced to six months in jail each for contempt of court.

After the trio completed their jail term, public prosecutors dropped the bribery charges. However, the Law Society of Thailand revoked their licenses to practice law for breaking its rules of conduct. Pichit’s permit to practice law has never been renewed despite his repeated applications.

When Srettha’s Cabinet was formed in September last year, Pichit was tipped to become PM’s Office minister, but his name was dropped from the lineup at the last minute on Pichit’s request following widespread public criticism. Instead, he was appointed as the PM’s adviser on legal affairs.

The bribery allegation returned to haunt Pichit during the reshuffle, but this time he stood firm despite intense pressure from critics.

Intense scrutiny

Three activist groups petitioned the Election Commission last Tuesday to seek a ruling from the Constitutional Court on whether Pichit possesses qualities that would disqualify him from becoming a government minister.

Political activist Wirangrong Dabbaransi also petitioned the Ombudsman’s Office to seek a Constitutional Court ruling on Pichit’s eligibility for the job.

Premier Srettha has stood by his appointment of Pichit, saying the ex-lawyer is qualified to hold a Cabinet post and the Council of State – the government’s legal advisors – had already confirmed his eligibility.

The council however seems to have some reservations, saying its legal advice was limited to the constitutional clauses mentioned by the Cabinet Secretariat in its query.

It emphasized that the duty of interpreting the Constitution lies with the Constitutional Court, while its advice was just for administration purposes.

The council’s advice on eligibility standards for government ministers was contained in a “highly confidential” letter dated September 1, 2023. Copies of the letter have been circulating on social media over the past week.

Serving the Shinawatras

Pichit has several years of legal experience under his belt, having served as a lawyer for Thaksin and his younger sister Yingluck Shinawatra in cases stemming from their tenures as prime minister.

Thaksin is regarded as the patriarch of Pheu Thai, while his youngest daughter Paetongtarn is the party’s current leader.

Pichit obtained a law degree from Ramkhamhaeng University before receiving a master’s in the same field from Dhurakij Pundit University. He later earned a master’s in political science from Ramkhamhaeng University and a doctorate in industrial business administration from King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang.

In 2011, he was elected as a Pheu Thai list MP before serving as Yingluck’s legal adviser during her time as prime minister. After her government was ousted in the 2014 military coup, he advised her defense team on a case in which Yingluck was accused of negligence in overseeing her government’s rice subsidy scheme.

In 2019, Pichit became the chief legal adviser of Pheu Thai’s “sister party”, Thai Raksa Chart, which was later dissolved by a court for naming the King’s eldest sister, Princess Ubolratana, as its prime ministerial candidate.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk