HE would have been damned if he did and damned if he didn't. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra opted for the former.
Since then, the two anti-terrorism decrees that he swiftly signed in the aftermath of Jakarta's JW Marriot Hotel bombing on Aug 5 have become a volatile issue in Thailand.
The first edict has changed the Criminal Code to prevent terrorist activity and allow for the detention of suspected terrorists and surveillance of private communication. The second enables the government to freeze suspected terrorist funds under the Money Laundering Act, among other things.
A battery of opponents, ranging from the opposition Democrat Party to law lecturers, civil rights groups and Muslims in the southern provinces, are vehemently against the form of amendments although they agree with the substance.
They claim that bypassing parliamentary debate has signalled the country's descent into dictatorship, with one senator even going into overkill by equating Thaksin with Adolf Hitler.
The decrees were supposed to have been tabled in Parliament for endorsement on Thursday but the formality was stymied by 108 Democrat MPs and 50 senators who petitioned the Constitutional Court to scrutinise the legality of the amendments.
In the meantime, the decrees remain in force.
The current situation should serve Thaksin’s government fine.
With the world's key leaders scheduled to buzz into Bangkok for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in October, the government has been under pressure to show that it was doing everything possible to make the host nation safe.
It is most probable that the court process would go on well after October. By then, the decrees would have served their usefulness.
When the petition was filed on Thursday, an unperturbed Thaksin, who was in Sri Lanka for a two-day visit, said: “Anyone who wants to go to court to get an interpretation can do so. No problem. We are going ahead with implementing the changed laws. We won’t allow anyone to use our country to carry out terrorist attacks.”
Thaksin had earlier promised to make the changes to the laws through Parliament on Aug 21 but reneged on the plan after last week’s Cabinet meeting.
The Jakarta hotel blast, which killed 11 people and injured more than 150, could be one of the reasons. Pressure from the US, which wants Thailand to do more to get rid of its suspected terrorist hot-beds and reassure leaders of a safe Apec, could be another.
Claiming the Democrats would use the debate to “play political games,” the Prime Minister argued that delays caused by the parliamentary process could jeopardise Thailand’s security.
“Given the incidents that have taken place in neighbouring countries, we must be prepared. If a country has legal weaknesses and is only able to solve problems as they arrive, it can cause serious damage to its economy and national security,” he said.
Urging the opponents to be “logical,” he asked: “I wonder what the critics will say if a bomb is thrown into their houses?”
But the critics are dismissing such questions. Suraphol Nitikrapoj, Thammasat University's Dean of Law who led 21 lecturers in denouncing the decrees, said: “Our Criminal Code has been amended without parliamentary scrutiny only twice – and both times they were done by dictatorial governments.”
Achporn Charuchinda, Permanent Law Councillor and one of the government's legal experts instrumental in drafting the decrees, said previous provisions in the Criminal Code did not “criminalise” international terrorists or domestic terrorists plotting to commit offences abroad.
According to him, the review of the laws began as early as 2001 and was expedited after looking at anti-terrorism legislation in other countries, including Malaysia, India and the US.
Thursday's nabbing of JI leader Hambali, Asia's most wanted man, has been a boon for the government. The arrest and seizure of explosives have, at the very least, helped the government fend off some of the flak and won vital points with the public.
The heated debate is unlikely to have any major political impact on ordinary Thais, the majority of whom are more concerned over the fate of teen idol Apichet Kittikorncharoen a.k.a Big.
(Hundreds of teenage girls have been gathering at Bangkok’s Vichayut Hospital daily where Big, who remained hooked onto a life support system after brain surgery, was reported to be showing signs of recovery.)
Dr Viboonpong Poonprasit of Thammasat University's Faculty of Political Science said the issue was momentous but the wrangling was largely confined to the political and legal circles.
“It is not very significant for most people. They think that the decrees are quite necessary under the circumstances,” he said.
However, he said there could be conflicts with the Muslim-majority southern provinces, if the government did not handle the matter “sensitively.”
Dr Viboonpong said there had always been tension and mistrust with the government leaders, noting that fingers were usually pointed at the community each time there was bomb blast or terrorist activity.
“The decrees have just added on to the simmering problem. If a Muslim is arrested and he is denied his rights, it could worsen the situation,” he said.
The political scientist, however, dismissed the critics’ comparisons of the decrees with sweeping powers of the Anti-Communist Act used by the government in the 70s.
“It's a different situation,” he said, adding that terrorism was the current global issue.
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