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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in Thailand

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: August 2014

Government and Politics

In1932, the Kingdom of Thailand (local name Prathet Thai, ‘land of the Thai’) became a constitutional monarchy, adopting a governmental system similar to the British (‘Westminster’) model. From this time, the king has remained head of state. Since 1946, the king of Thailand was Bhumibol Adulyadej. Over his 70-year reign, he became a powerful symbol of national unity and moral authority and was greatly revered by the Thai people. His passing away on 13 October 2016 initiated a period of national mourning and sorrow.

The crown prince, Vajiralongkorn, is expected to take the throne in the next few days. Though the king's role is largely ceremonial, he does grant royal assent to the appointment of the prime minister and various other dignitaries.

However, since this time, the country has been under military rule on twelve separate occasions. This is currently the case; in May 2014, the military seized power in a coup d’état. At first, martial law was imposed, though this was lifted in April 2015. Nevertheless, Thailand remains under the rule of a military junta called the ‘National Council for Peace and Order’. (Considering the regime has specifically banned Nineteen-Eighty Four, this is an aptly Orwellian name.)

The most recent constitution, promulgated in 2007, was later annulled. The replacement interim constitution, introduced on 22nd July 2014, provides for the reintroduction of representative democracy. However, it also grants junta members sweeping powers and immunity from future prosecution. The style of rule under the junta is little different from that of a dictatorship.

The leader of the junta and self-styled interim prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has promised to relinquish control of the country once the country’s institutions have been reformed. A general election has been set for summer 2017. However, elections have already been put off several times and always seem to be just over the horizon. Due to the current lack of respect for the rule of law in Thailand, several Western nations have suspended aid towards the country.

In times of civilian rule, the prime minister is head of government and most powerful person in the country. Normally, the Thai legislature is the bicameral National Assembly of Thailand, which is made up of elected representatives. Currently, the National Assembly is unicameral and is made up of 200 members, mostly from the army and all appointed via the junta. In other words, it is little more than a rubber stamp.

Thailand is politically unstable and has endured a number of changes of government (the 2014 constitution is the 18th since 1932) and coups d’état over the years. In general, however, people are well adjusted to this turbulence and make allowances for it in their daily lives.

The current regime has tightly curtailed personal freedoms. Rights of speech and assembly are now tightly restricted, and criticism of the junta is likely to lead to arrest. Showing respect for the country and the king are important at all times. Indeed, the crime of lèse-majesté (insulting the monarch), which, though on the statue books, was ignored for decades, has become punishable again.

The media theoretically has freedom, but tends to censor itself anyway out of fear. Perhaps not surprising, considering that, for example, the régime has banned the well-known act of sedition that is eating sandwiches in public.

Legal Systems

The Thai legal system is essentially based on civil law, but it has influences of common law too. It is a combination of local and Western laws. The highest courts in the land are the Supreme Court of Justice, Constitutional Court and Supreme Administrative Court. Each of these has a court president and a number of senior judges.

There are courts of the first instance, courts of appeal, and the supreme court, along with a separate military court. A constitutional court was created in 1998 to interpret the new constitution at that time. 

Trial is by investigation, not jury. The king appoints judges in the supreme court or Sandika. Corruption is endemic and there is often one law for the rich and another for the poor. Indeed, the wealthy can largely buy their own justice. Islamic Law (Sharia) is applied in the far south.

Be well aware of the penalties for drug-related crimes. Possession of even small amounts is normally treated with a custodial sentence and drug trafficking is a capital offence.




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