6 June 2024

General Prayut Chan-o-cha has defied a demand by anti-government protesters for him to step down as prime minister. But he may lose his seat if the Constitutional Court finds him guilty of violating the supreme law next month.

The court is scheduled to rule on December 2 whether Prayut violated the Constitution by occupying an official Army residence after his mandatory retirement from the military more than six years ago.

The case was brought to court by House Speaker Chuan Leekpai at the request of opposition leader Sompong Amornwiwat.

General Prayut is accused of breaking the supreme law by staying on at the residence inside the First Infantry Battalion of Royal Guards on Vibhavadi Rangsit Road in Bangkok after leaving the Army in 2014.

Prayut served as commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army from October 1, 2010, until September 30, 2014. He had earlier seized power in a coup against the Pheu Thai-led government on May 22, 2014.

The opposition leader’s petition alleges the PM breached constitutional provisions that forbid a government minister from “receiving any special money or benefit from a government agency, state agency or state enterprise apart from that given by the government agency, state agency or state enterprise to other persons in the ordinary course of business”.

In so doing, the petition alleges, General Prayut also violated Section 160 of the Constitution which states: “A minister must not behave in ways that constitute a serious violation of or failure to comply with ethical standards.”

According to Section 170, a violation of Section 160 warrants termination of the culprit’s ministerial post.

In other words, General Prayut could lose his premiership if the Constitutional Court rules in favour of the opposition leader’s petition.

Since its establishment in 1997, the Constitutional Court has sent two prime ministers packing for violating the charter.

The first was Samak Sundaravej, prime minister for People Power Party affiliated with former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been ousted in a coup two years’ earlier.

In September 2008, the Constitutional Court found that Samak violated the constitutional provision prohibiting the prime minister from being an employee of any business or individual. Samak was found to have been hired by a television production house to host a TV cooking programme for a monthly salary of Bt80,000.

The court ruled that by allowing himself to be employed by the company, Samak acted in violation of the charter clause, which is aimed at preventing conflicts of interest among government ministers.

The verdict sparked controversy, with many legal experts claiming the court had misinterpreted the spirit of law.

Chulalongkorn University law expert Pornson Liengboonlertchai commented after the ruling that the constitutional provision was aimed at preventing conflicts of interest and abuse of power by government ministers.

However, he did not see how Samak’s stint as a TV host could result in him abusing his official post to benefit his employer.

“The Constitutional Court should review the Samak case’s verdict to determine the scope of the mistake, particularly regarding the constitutional interpretation,” Pornson wrote in a Prachatai article published on September 29, 2008.

“This verdict has been widely criticised and many people and academics do not accept it,” he added.

Former president of the Constitutional Court, Vasant Sroipisuthi, acknowledged in 2013 that “hurried” preparation of the written verdict in Samak’s case made it prone to error. But he later clarified that this did not mean the verdict was defective.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female prime minister and sister to Thaksin, was the second PM to be disqualified by the Constitutional Court.

In May 2014, the court ruled that Yingluck had violated the charter by transferring Thawil Pliensri from his post as National Security Council secretary-general in 2011.

“The prime minister’s status has ended. She can no longer stay in her position acting as caretaker prime minister,” the court said in a statement.

Yingluck was found to have abused her power as prime minister by moving Thawil to make way for her relative to be appointed as national police chief.

Thawil was moved from his post in September 2011, paving the way for then-police chief Wichean Potephosree to replace him. Priewpan Damapong – the brother of Thaksin’s ex-wife Khunying Potjaman Na Pombejra succeeded Wichean as police chief.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk