Thai court dissolves ruling party, sanctions premier

Watson is a Times staff writer.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court ordered the dissolution of the governing party and banned Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat from politics for five years today, plunging the country deeper into political crisis.

Somchai’s People’s Power Party and two others in the governing coalition must be shut down because they were guilty of fraud in December elections, the court ruled.

Somchai is expected to step down soon, but his party and its allies already have a list of 20 possible successors, according to local reports.

So any victory is likely to be short lived for the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy, or PAD, which seized the country’s main airport a week ago.


The court decision left Thais wondering if anyone can emerge to lead a country dangerously adrift as an occupation of two airports cripples the once-lucrative tourism industry, rival camps of protesters threaten each other, and rumors circulate of a looming military coup.

Before the ruling, Somchai’s officials had already set up a new party, called Puea Thai, for its members of parliament and any allies who wished to join.

The judges had to hold their hearing in a different court after red-shirted government supporters blocked the Constitutional Court building to protest what they see as a rush to judgment.

The court refused to hear witnesses even though Somchai’s party, and two others in his ruling coalition, had presented a list of more that 200 people they wanted to testify.

And this is supposed to be party time for Thais.

Each year they celebrate their beloved king’s birthday, a national bash that draws throngs here to watch a parade of royal barges, listen to the monarch’s jazz compositions or bow as he passes in his pale yellow Rolls-Royce.

This time, as they await King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 81st birthday on Friday, most Thais are wondering what, if anything, the man revered as a demigod will do to lead his subjects out of the dangerous political crisis.

With the capital’s two civilian airports shut down by the anti-government demonstrators and supporters of Somchai holding counter-protests, fears are growing that the stalemate could erupt in serious street violence. One deadly attack was reported early today on airport protesters.


Thousands of PAD members who have occupied the Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports since last week see Somchai’s ouster as a crucial victory. The prime minister’s supporters had denounced the expected decision as “a judicial coup.”

“We are in a situation where it is hard to find a way out that is going to make everybody happy,” said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, Thailand analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization engaged in conflict resolution.

“Right now, there is an increasing danger of civil strife,” she added before the court ruled.

“I think both sides, the PAD and the government, have to step back and think for the benefit of the country.”


The military, had called on Thais to end the crisis before the king’s birthday to preserve his peace of mind.

Bhumibol is the world’s longest-reigning monarch. Although the king has a mostly ceremonial role under the Thai Constitution, he has been called on to help resolve numerous political crises during his 62-year rule.

The king was born in Cambridge, Mass., where his father, Prince Mahidol, was studying public health at Harvard. Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946 when his brother, King Ananda Mahidol, was found dead in his bedroom at the Grand Palace with a gunshot to the head. The death remains a mystery.

It was after a private 2006 audience with the king that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that he would step down. It was widely assumed that the king gave him a shove toward the door.


Thaksin was a caretaker prime minister, waiting for his successor to be chosen, when the military overthrew his government in a bloodless coup in September 2006.

He went into exile, and his largely rural supporters voted his allies in to power when the military restored democracy a year ago.

Somchai’s People’s Power Party won the December 2007 elections.

His red-shirted supporters, most of whom live in Thailand’s poorly developed countryside, have been converging on the capital in recent days as their leaders threatened to break up the airport sit-ins, which have crippled the nation’s economy.


In response, the anti-government alliance moved hundreds of its supporters Monday from Government House, the prime minister’s office compound, to reinforce several thousand demonstrators occupying the two airports.

A 29-year-old protester was killed and 22 others were injured early today when an attacker fired what was believed to be a grenade into the occupied passenger terminal at Don Muang airport as most of the anti-government demonstrators slept, local media reported. Witnesses said the assailant sped away down the highway.

Protesters stormed Government House in August, forcing Somchai to escape over a back fence.

He has spent recent days holed up in the northern city of Chiang Mai.


The king may not be able to work the political magic he has in past crises because this time the palace’s neutrality is in question.

In October, Queen Sirikit presided over the funeral of a 28-year-old PAD supporter who was killed when a tear gas canister struck her head as police tried to break up a demonstration outside parliament.

The anti-government alliance interpreted the queen’s appearance at the funeral, along with her daughter Princess Chulabhorn, as silent approval from the palace for its months-long effort to topple the government.

The prime minister’s backers also suspect that the king may not be above politics.


They had insisted that Somchai’s elected government had to remain in power to defend democracy from what they see as a mob that is holding the country’s main airports hostage.