Court Case Is a Thai Watershed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a region where corruption is endemic and the rule of law is rare, Thailand faces a momentous decision: Should it remove its popular prime minister because he did not publicly disclose all of his vast wealth?

In an emotional speech Monday to the Constitutional Court, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra conceded that he may have made an "honest" mistake in underreporting his assets and urged the judges not to strip him of his post.

The question of Thaksin's fate has absorbed the country in recent weeks and prompted an outpouring of support for the mega-rich prime minister. Many Thais hope that he will use his business savvy to lead the country out of a four-year economic slump.

Widespread corruption contributed to Southeast Asia's 1997 economic collapse, from which many countries have yet to recover. But financial disclosure laws still are rare in the region, and it was considered a significant advance for democracy when one was included in Thailand's 1997 constitution.

A former policeman who got his start selling computers to his police department and later cornered Thailand's telecommunications business, Thaksin is accused of hiding some of his assets in 1997 when he stepped down from the post of deputy prime minister.

For unexplained reasons, Thaksin and his wife allegedly transferred millions of dollars' worth of shares in his company to members of his domestic staff, including his maid and driver.

Some speculate that he may have made the transfers to avoid taxes or as part of a stock manipulation deal.

Whatever the motive, the National Counter Corruption Commission charges that he did not disclose ownership of the shares as required when he filled out his asset disclosure form upon leaving his previous government post.

"I had no intention of concealing my assets," Thaksin told the 15-judge court and a packed courtroom. "There were mistakes, and they were honest ones."

Under the 1997 constitution, which Thailand adopted in an attempt to curb corruption, the mistake could be costly.

If Thaksin is found guilty of improperly reporting his assets, he could be barred from holding public office for five years and would be forced to step down from the post he won by an overwhelming margin in January.

The charismatic tycoon remains popular. In one recent poll, more than 75% of voters supported him. But even more is at stake than who will lead the country.

The high court must decide whether the constitution applies equally to everyone--or whether some officials remain above the law.

"The country is reaching a very critical moment deciding which way it will go," said Sunai Phasuk, an analyst with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development in Bangkok.

Filing public disclosure statements is a common legal requirement for politicians in the U.S. It helps keep corrupt officials from amassing wealth while in office by requiring them to periodically report their holdings.

"We should stick to the rule," said Chaiwat Khamchoo, dean of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "The rule is good. You can't change the rule to suit any individual."

Throughout Southeast Asia, graft has played a major part in politics this year.

In the Philippines, President Joseph Estrada was impeached on corruption charges and then forced out of office in January by mass protests and the military.

In Vietnam, government graft contributed to the ouster of the country's top leader, Communist Party Secretary-General Le Kha Phieu, in April.

And in Indonesia, President Abdurrahman Wahid is likely to be removed from office this summer because of his alleged role in two multimillion-dollar corruption scandals and widespread dissatisfaction with his performance.

In December, just before Thaksin and his party, Thais Love Thais, won election, the National Counter Corruption Commission indicted him on the disclosure charge.

The commission's general secretary, Klanarong Chanthick, told the court Monday that "the evidence of intentional asset concealment abounds."

"How could he say that he didn't intend to conceal these shares?" Klanarong asked. "These maids, drivers, security guards would not have enough money to buy millions of shares."

Thaksin, one of Asia's richest men, with wealth approaching $1 billion, told the court that he "simply did not understand the asset forms" he was required to fill out.

With Thaksin's admission that he erred in reporting his assets, the public discussion has shifted to the question of what punishment the court should impose.

"If you look into the evidence, there is no other alternative for the court but to rule he is guilty," analyst Sunai said.

Some of the prime minister's backers are pushing for the court to declare that his five-year banishment from politics would be retroactive and would start from December 1997, when he signed the form, not the date on which the judges rule.

That would mean he might be out of office for only 18 months and could make a comeback at the end of next year.

In recent days, crowds have rallied in his support, Buddhist monks have chanted en masse on his behalf, and supporters have organized petition drives in the hope that the court can be swayed to be lenient. After Thaksin's televised 20-minute speech to the court, some tearfully called in to talk shows to support the prime minister.

Thaksin has appealed to his supporters to remain calm. About 2,000 pro-Thaksin demonstrators gathered peacefully outside the courthouse Monday to cheer him on.

"I gained my wealth honestly during my entire life," he told the court. "If there was some mistake, the mistake was made unwittingly."

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