BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's military-backed government, a U.S. non-NATO ally, faces possible collapse because of two corruption cases, but the army is trying to install a hawkish commander while Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva remains in power.

Mr. Abhisit, who took office in December 2008, hopes he and his Democrat Party will escape termination if found guilty by Thailand's powerful Constitutional Court, which received the corruption cases from aggressive prosecutors in the Office of the Attorney-General.

"We will respect, and follow, the decision of the court," the soft-spoken prime minister said. His Democrat Party allegedly received illegal donations worth more than eight million US dollars in 2005 from a major cement corporation, TPI Polene.

In a second case, the Democrat Party allegedly misused a grant worth about 900,000 US dollars from the Election Commission's political development fund.

Illegal donations, and the misuse of the commission's money, violate the Political Party Act.

If found guilty in either case, the prime minister and other Democrat Party executives reportedly hope to convince the court to agree to a loophole, based on the legality of retroactive punishment.

When the alleged offences were committed in 2005, a conviction for corruption by a political party's top executives, or the misuse of funds, could result in the party's liquidation under a 1998 Political Party Act.

In 2007, that punishment for both offenses was expanded to include banning the guilty political party's top executives from government office for five years.

The Democrat Party was expected to argue that any violations it may have committed in 2004 and 2005 should not be subject to the increased punishments, which came into effect in 2007.

If the current coalition government's Democrat Party is convicted in either case under the 1998 version of the act, and is dissolved, Mr. Abhisit and his top executives could, in theory, jump into a newly created political party and attempt to somehow stay in power.

Parliamentarians could then make backroom deals to unite behind the new party, and either keep Mr. Abhisit as prime minister.

The Constitutional Court, however, previously ruled twice that the 2007 Act was retroactively valid, and dissolved two other political parties.

If the tougher 2007 law is used in a conviction in either corruption case -- and Mr. Abhisit and his top executives suffer a five-year ban -- a vacuum will appear at the top of Thailand's squabbling political pyramid.

If that happens, the toppled politicians may try to staff a newly invented party, using pristine Democrat Party executives who were not in top slots when the alleged offenses occurred. One of those unsullied Democrat Party members, in a new party, could then possibly be slotted into the prime minister's chair.

A new party named Thai Khem Khaeng ("Strong Thailand") was registered on June 4, prompting speculation in the Thai media that the Democrat Party was behind the move.

The court scheduled August 9 as an initial hearing date in the case involving a misuse of funds. The multi-million-dollar donation case was expected to begin a few weeks later, in a separate trial.

The Attorney-General's prosecutors reportedly demanded the banning of about 40 Democrat Party executives for five years, because they held power in 2004 and 2005 when the illegal donations were allegedly paid.

Mr. Abhisit, now 46, was a Democrat Party executive at that time -- starting as deputy party leader in 2004, and as the party's leader from March 2005.

Up until Mr. Abhisit took over the Democrat Party in 2005, the leader was Banyat Bantadtan who presided during both alleged violations.

"These dissolution cases have already shaken public confidence in the country's oldest political party," said Thai Rath newspaper on Sunday (July 18), referring to the Democrat Party.

"With eroding public confidence, the coalition government finds it hard to maintain political stability."

Government corruption torments this Buddhist majority Southeast Asian nation, and is frequently exposed in front-page scandals which occasionally come to trial, with mixed results.

"Taking action against corrupt state agencies is a problem, when the private sector is reluctant to provide confirmation of the kickback demand," Prime Minister Abhisit said on Friday (July 16), in response to separate complaints by the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade about government officials demanding bribes from private companies.

"The private sector appears submissive and tolerant of the acts, rather than risking putting itself at odds with state agencies by pointing the finger at them," Mr. Abhisit said.

The prime minister and the military are meanwhile displaying a public show of unity, after defeating on May 19 a nine-week insurrection by anti-government "terrorist" Red Shirts.

During April and May, scattered clashes between the army and Red Shirts left 90 people dead, most of them civilians, and more than 1,000 injured.

The military used armored personnel carriers and assault rifles to finally clear the Reds' barricades from central Bangkok's streets.

Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Anupong Paojinda is widely perceived as supporting Mr. Abhisit. They appear to agree that the general, when he retires on October 1, can promote Deputy Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Prayuth Chanocha to take over Thailand's U.S.-trained military.

Gen. Anupong is presented by colleagues and Thai analysts as a relatively dovish commander, who was reluctant to use the heavy firepower against the Red Shirts' barricades, because he wanted to retire without his countrymen's blood on his hands.

The Red Shirts' insurrection failed in its bid to force an immediate dissolution of Parliament, and a nationwide election, which could have brought back their popularly elected former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr. Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup, staged by Gen. Anupong and other top generals.

Mr. Thaksin is currently an international fugitive after being sentenced to two years imprisonment for corruption and, in a separate case, having 1.8 billion US dollars of his wealth seized by the government. The 2007 Political Act, orchestrated by the 2006 coup-installed junta, was initially used to punish Mr. Thaksin and 100 of his party's executives.

Though Mr. Thaksin argued against the law being used retroactively, the Constitutional Court found them guilty of earlier election violations, disbanded their Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party, and barred the 101 politicians from office for five years.

Later, in 2008, the Constitutional Court kicked out Mr. Thaksin's ally, then-prime minister Samak Sundaravej, for a conflict of interest because he was illegally "employed" while hosting a TV cooking show.

The court also disbanded Mr. Samak's People Power Party, in a separate case, for electoral fraud. The rising Gen. Prayuth, 56, is widely regarded as hawkish, especially against Mr. Thaksin, and expected to oppose any attempt by Mr. Thaksin's Red Shirt allies to form a new government.

If Prime Minister Abhisit's government collapses because of the corruption trials, any new leader will need to consider the support of Gen. Anupong and Gen. Prayuth, because the military has unleashed 18 coups and attempted coups since the 1930s, whenever it felt displeased.

"The prime minister [Abhisit] said that corruption, and the abuse of power, had caused discontent for a great number of people, and this led to coups d'etat in the past," the Foreign Ministry said in a 2009 "Towards Sustainable Democracy" report.

"A coup is also an act of violation against the rule of law," the Foreign Ministry said.

The leaders of the 2006 coup, however, gave themselves amnesty for their putsch.

The military now appears pleased that Mr. Abhisit increased the defense budget and generously allowed controversial weapons procurement contracts.

"Since the army is the only tool the Abhisit government has against former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red Shirts, there is no question it has to keep the military happy," the English-language Bangkok Post reported earlier this month.

The politicized military also wields a lucrative and influential media arm, owning more than 200 radio frequencies, a TV station and a TV channel's concession.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)