>Legal Blows Imperil Thai Government

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Thailand’s Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama talks to media during a press conference in Bangkok, Thailand, on Thursday, July 10, 2008. Thailand’s foreign minister has resigned in a bid to defuse political tension as a raft of court cases and street protests batter the country’s 5-month-old government.(AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

By HANNAH BEECH /
BANGKOK

They’re falling like dominoes. In just 48 hours, three top allies of Thailand’s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej have been forced out of politics by a series of legal blows. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama resigned after a constitutional court red-carded him for not consulting parliament on a border dispute with Cambodia. On Wednesday, the same court forced the resignation of Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsap for not declaring his wife’s assets before taking office, as is required by Thai law. And on Tuesday, former speaker of parliament Yongyut Tiyapairat was banned from politics for five years when the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s verdict of electoral fraud.

Just five months into his tenure as Prime Minister, Samak — a veteran right-wing firebrand who is equally as famous in Thailand for his T.V. cooking show — is now fighting for his political life. Not only has he lost three linchpins in his People’s Power Party (PPP), but one of the court decisions could also spell the end of the entire party. Thailand’s constitution mandates that a political party can be dissolved if one of its executives is found guilty of a crime. House speaker Yongyut was the PPP’s deputy leader, and therefore the party — itself a proxy for another political bloc that had been forcibly dissolved earlier — could be extinct within a matter of weeks.

This latest spasm of political instability has spooked investors, sending Thailand’s stock market down nearly 20% since late May. The index had already been a lackluster performer, with the country still recovering from the aftermath of the September 2006 military coup that unseated elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. A billionaire tycoon who is generally loved by the poor and reviled by the rich, Thaksin was charged with corruption and his party was disbanded. On Wednesday, the first of many cases against Thaksin got underway in Bangkok, just as other courts were busy issuing rulings that dealt body blows to the PPP.

Samak’s PPP won elections last December by essentially campaigning as a proxy for Thaksin’s banned party, promising plentiful health care and village loans. The message resonated with the rural poor, who ignored the coup leaders and brought Thaksin’s supporters back to power. Indeed, even if the PPP is dissolved because of its deputy leader’s alleged malfeasance, another round of elections would likely bring some other newly formed proxy party for Thaksin to power. In essence, it would be back to square one.

That potential scenario infuriates many members of Thailand’s elite, who believe that Thaksin, far from being a populist democrat, is actually a corrupt politician who distorted democratic institutions to cement his power. Since late May, thousands of protesters have camped out in central Bangkok calling for Samak to resign because they believe he is little more than a Thaksin puppet. Samak begs to differ, telling TIME recently that he doesn’t consult with his predecessor on political issues. “I can do [it] on my own,” he says.

But if the political decisions over the past five months are truly Samak’s own, he’s shown less than a delicate hand. Case in point is the court decision that brought down Foreign Minister Noppadon. Earlier this year, Thailand supported Cambodia’s bid to gain UNESCO World Heritage status for a temple located in a disputed border zone between the two nations. Although the temple itself sits on land that an international court deemed to be Cambodia’s back in 1962, Thailand claims the main access area to the temple as its own. So when Noppadon provided official Thai backing for Cambodia’s sole application for World Heritage status�as opposed to a joint bid by both countries�nationalists in Thailand were up in arms. The constitutional court then ruled that Noppadon’s decision to support Cambodia’s bid without consulting parliament first was unconstitutional because under Thailand’s charter, any agreement with another nation should pass through the legislature.

In his resignation speech on Thursday, Noppadon insisted he had done nothing wrong. “I have not sold the country out,” he said. “I love Thailand and would not cause any damage to the nation.” But Noppadon is in a vulnerable position; before serving as Foreign Minister, he was Thaksin’s lawyer and spokesman. One of the reasons the coup leaders gave for deposing Thaksin was that he supposedly had not shown enough respect for Thailand’s beloved king. For Samak’s enemies, in turn, taking an allegedly cavalier attitude toward Thailand’s territorial integrity was not so different from an alignment with a man they believe had denigrated their monarch.

In order to salvage his rule, Samak will likely have to announce a major cabinet reshuffle. The 73-year-old P.M. has promised to face the nation on Sunday during his weekly TV address. In the meantime, Thailand’s usually outspoken leader is keeping uncharacteristically quiet. Nobody wants to be the next domino.

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