“Prayut Faces New Realities” by Termsak Chalermpalanupap

2019/68, 15 August 2019

Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha is learning to live with the reality of being head of an elected government in a parliamentary democracy:  accepting full accountability for his deeds and speech, and coping with checks and balances.
While watching television news of the 16 July audience with King Vajiralongkorn at which Prayut’s cabinet took the customary oath of allegiance and honesty, opposition members of the House of Representatives noticed that something was amiss.  
Section 161 of the 2017 Constitution prescribes that every minister must, before taking office, make a declaration in front of the king that can be informally translated as:  “I, (name of the declarer), do solemnly declare that I will be loyal to the king and will faithfully perform my duties in the interest of the country and of the people. I will also uphold and observe the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand in every respect.”

Surprisingly, while leading the cabinet in recitation of this pledge, Prayut omitted the last sentence, which is undoubtedly a substantive part of the oath. No one in the government disputes the fact that the omission took place.

But Dr Wissanu Krea-ngam, the deputy prime minister in charge of legal affairs and one of the country’s most experienced jurists, has contended that the omission does not constitute a serious hindrance to the Prayut cabinet’s taking office. More intriguing is his cryptic remark that “someday it will be known why there should be no further discussion” about the omission.

Similarly, Prayut also tried at first to fudge discussion of his lapse, saying that he considered as sufficient and constitutional his pledge before the king that he and his cabinet members would look after all Thais and serve the entire Thai kingdom. In his opinion, such pledge is in accordance with the king’s wishes, as stated in his royal command at the coronation ceremony on 4 May.

Prayut urged the Thai people to move on, saying that the oath-taking was already done and that there should be no politicising it to create more trouble.

However, the seven opposition parties in the parliament will not let go of this issue. Instead, they plan to seek an explanation from Prayut by means of an urgent interpellation in the House of Representatives.

The Office of the Attorney General has accepted for consideration a complaint that Prayut’s omission is violation of Section 112 of the Criminal Code, on lèse majesté.

Moreover, the Office of the Ombudsman has also accepted a complaint concerning Prayut’s omission. If the office rules that it is a serious breach, it can refer the case to the Constitutional Court.

Should the Constitutional Court also find the omission a serious breach, it may rule that the oath-taking was incomplete and unconstitutional.

Prayut would then have at the very least to apologise to the king and request another audience to lead the cabinet in taking the oath properly.  Further, all decisions taken by his new cabinet thus far would become null and void.

Worse still, such a setback would create a new opportunity for opposition parties to demand the resignation of Prayut to accept full political responsibility for this unprecedented blunder.

Sensing the gravity of the situation, Prayut has finally conceded that there is an issue arising from his fumbled oath. Responding to media questions on the planned opposition interpellation, Prayut said on 6 August that he was “working on a solution … and [would] do it himself”. But he insisted that what happened involved no intentional wrong-doing or deliberate violation of the constitution.

Prayut is getting a crash course on accountability and on checks and balances.  

He must know that he is no longer a junta head with the magic wand of absolute power to wave away any administrative mess.

As a prime minister with an elected parliament, Prayut is only the head of the executive branch. He shares government power with the legislature and the judiciary.

And, like everyone else in each of the three branches of government, he must show respect for and compliance with the constitution in every letter and spirit.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is Senior Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS –  Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.