Sunday, June 2, 2002

BANGKOK Democracy turned ugly in Thailand last week during a four-day, round-the-clock battle in parliament in which 15 Cabinet ministers censured for corruption managed to hang on to their jobs.
The ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister Pitak Intrawityanunt, Defense Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak, were accused of corruption and ineptitude by the National Counter-Corruption Commission.
When put to a vote, however, all retained their seats because the Thai AK Thai party of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra controls the 500-member legislature.
The raucous debate, at times filled with personal invective, went on for four days and three nights.
“One had the feeling that perhaps parliamentary debate is much more difficult to perform than prime-time soap operas,” former parliamentary speaker Meechai Ruchuphan said later.
He concluded that the session “was like a typical grade-B Thai movie that offers a wide range of emotional content and roller coaster excitement” with “verbal violence, slapstick, tear-jerking tragedies, love-hate relationships, suspense, horror and downright disgusting behavior by some of the actors.”
Suthichai Yoon, editor in chief of the Nation Multimedia Group, chided the opposition Democratic party’s assault as being long-winded and repetitive.
“But the evidence and documentation they produced,” he said, “were damningly convincing.”
Thailand was set on the path toward democracy by King Rama VII, who started moving the country, then known as Siam, from absolute monarchy toward constitutional monarchy in 1932. As the dispute erupted in parliament this week, Thais marked the 61st anniversary of the king’s death.
Over the years, coups have been the order of the day, the most recent having occurred in 1991. The next year, there was a successful democratic uprising, despite Thai soldiers opening fire, killing 44 and leaving 38 still missing.
A new constitution was enacted in 1997.
Mr. Thaksin assumed office in February 2001 after a successful business career.
The prime minister scores high in polls, because he has espoused a populist stance in which, for instance, each village has been given a million baht, or about $25,000, for public projects.
At the same time, accusations of corruption have dogged his government.
“‘Conflict of interest’ is an English term that just a year ago had no proper Thai translation,” wrote Pana Janviroj, editor of the Nation.
After giving the new Thai term, “pana,” he said: “It would be naive to think that Thais are not familiar with the terminology. They are.”

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