BANGKOK, December 2: Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, under pressure from months of street protests, survived a legal challenge Wednesday over his living arrangements that could have seen him thrown out of office.
The kingdom’s nine-judge constitutional court ruled that Prayut was not guilty of conflict of interest by living in an army residence after leaving the military.
“The status of General Prayut Chan-O-Cha as prime minister and defence minister remains unchanged,” the head judge said.
The court ruled that Prayut’s status as prime minister entitled him to live in the house even though he stepped down as army chief in 2014.
After the verdict, government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri said Prayut was “working as usual and following his official schedule as normal”.
The ruling, though widely expected, is likely to inflame the protest movement that has shaken Thailand since July calling for Prayut, who came to power in a 2014 coup, to quit.
As the judgment was read out, about 3,000 protesters massed for a fresh rally at a major intersection in northern Bangkok. They included uniformed high school students wearing hair clips in the shape of rubber ducks, a symbol of the pro-democracy movement.
“I’m not surprised because I think the court received the directive from the top. The court is not fair,” Reeda, 26, a graduate student, told AFP as demonstrators gathered at Lat Phrao intersection.
“In the past they always decide decisions that contrast with the feeling of the people.”
The main opposition party Pheu Thai brought the legal challenge, which if it had succeeded would have forced Prayut and his cabinet out of office.
“The court’s ruling today shows that there’s inequality within government spending for civil servants,” opposition deputy chief whip Somkid Chuakong told reporters.
The court said the military had changed the status of the residence from an army house to a guest house in 2012 “so technically, the defendant’s no longer living inside an army house”.
The premier has previously argued his family must stay at the army house on a military base for security reasons.
He appeared relaxed ahead of the decision, and toured a coconut farm on Wednesday, sending his lawyers to hear the verdict on his behalf.
“If the court rules that you’ve done wrong then you’ve done wrong… if not then that’s the end of the story,” he told reporters in Bangkok on Tuesday.
Some critics say the constitutional court is unduly interventionist.
Titipol Phakdeewanich a political scientist with Ubon Ratchathani University, said Prayut’s victory was little surprise.
“They always try to find a legal loophole to protect him,” he told AFP.
Chulalongkorn University political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak echoed the view.
“Anyone who’s followed Thai politics for the past 15 years will think it’s a foregone conclusion… because the constitutional court has been so politicised since 2006 that it does not engender public trust,” he told AFP.
The pro-democracy movement is facing legal action of its own, with five key leaders charged on Monday under Thailand’s strict royal defamation laws — the first time they have been used in two years.
As well as calling for Prayut to go, protesters also want reforms to the army-drafted constitution and for changes to the monarchy — a taboo-smashing demand in a country that has long revered its royal family. (AFP)