Bangkok, Thailand - The charge was murder. The accused was a former prime minister, once the political darling of his country's urban middle class, and now leader of the opposition.
Abhisit Vejjajiva reported last week to the Criminal Court in Bangkok to be formally indicted for allegedly ordering soldiers to gun down scores of people protesting against his government in 2010.
Whether the case has merit or is politically driven, the sight of a former prime minister voluntarily walking into Criminal Court to be booked for murder would normally lead observers to conclude that justice, accountability, and the rule of law are core values of the society in question.
But this is Thailand. And in Thailand, the rich and powerful almost never pay for their crimes. Along with glittering Buddhist temples and respect for elders, impunity is an integral, although darker part of Thailand's culture.
"If there is no rule of law, the country will not survive," King Bhumibol Adulyadej is reported to have told the country's judges several years ago. A constitutional monarch, the revered Thai king takes pride in his strict adherence to the legal limits of his position.
Impunity has acted as motivation for continued violations. It has played an enormous role in Thailand's national problems.
Nonetheless, some academics have argued that Thailand's semi-feudal social order is by its very nature a contributor to a culture of impunity.
In the "Land of Smiles", scions of wealthy families accused of killing police officers are somehow allowed to skip the country to avoid prosecution. The police in turn have been accused of taking percentages of illegal businesses, extorting bribes from honest citizens, and executing alleged wrongdoers without trial.
Generals stage coups and grant themselves immunity, and security forces kill Muslims in the deep south and then receive promotions. Politicians enrich themselves through corruption and conflicts of interest, and some openly incite mobs to violence.
Unlike in Japan or South Korea, no one resigns in disgrace. And almost no one in a position of power ever goes to prison for his or her misdeeds.
"This culture of impunity is our national shame,'' says former senator and opposition politician Kraisak Choonhavan.
In recent years it has become even more malignant, as each side in the country's politically polarised landscape, seeing their adversaries go unpunished for their crimes, break the law in ever more brazen ways.
"Impunity has acted as motivation for continued violations. It has played an enormous role in Thailand's national problems,'' says Benjamin Zawacki, senior legal advisor for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
But signs of change may be emerging. The massive street protests that have rocked Bangkok in recent weeks were sparked by what Sunai Phasuk, the Thailand researcher for Human Rights Watch in Asia, called "the greatest act of impunity in Thailand's political history".
|Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Chiang Mai [AFP]
At 4am on November 1, the ruling Pheu Thai party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra attempted to ram an amnesty law through parliament that would have wiped clean all politically related offenses - including those involving alleged corruption and violence - since 2004.
It was widely viewed as an attempt to whitewash the corruption conviction of her brother, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been described as the country's most polarising political figure.
Originally, the bill was limited to those arrested for taking part in political demonstrations without committing acts of violence or destruction, and not those who led them.
But the rewritten bill provided amnesty to politicians charged with corruption; those overseeing and participating in brutal military abuses in the south; generals who overthrew an elected government in a 2006 coup; "yellow shirt" anti-Thaksin protest leaders who seized Bangkok International Airport in 2008; and "red shirt" pro-Thaksin demonstration leaders who urged followers to burn down Bangkok in 2010. And, most notoriously, Thaksin himself.
Ousted in the 2006 coup, Thaksin was later convicted of enriching his family through a conflict of interest, and about $2 billion of his assets were seized. He fled the country to avoid a two-year prison sentence and further prosecutions, but many Thais say he is running his sister's government from self-imposed exile in Dubai.
His supporters say he was unfairly convicted. His opponents say his case was a rare moment of accountability. Critics say the bill would have paved the way for his comeback and facilitated the return of those assets, some of which were in Yingluck's name, and so she personally stood to benefit.
Almost immediately, people began spilling into the streets in anger and frustration, symbolically blowing whistles and waving the national flag.
Police won't dare arrest Suthep [Thaugsuban] because they know there will be violence.
Among those who initially came out to protest were some of Thaksin's red-shirt supporters because, ironically, the amnesty would also have included former prime minister Abhisit and his deputy at the time, Suthep Thaugsuban, who is leading the current round of street protests.
Both Abhisit and Suthep opposed the amnesty bill, have professed they are innocent, and said they would fight their cases in court. Suthep, however, did not appear last Thursday, requesting a 30-day postponement because he was leading street protests.
Yingluck insisted the amnesty was necessary for reconciliation. The problem, however, is that there has been little truth and no remorse preceding it.
Yingluck ignored the findings and recommendations of an independent Truth and Reconciliation Committee that blamed both sides for the violence and destruction that accompanied the pro-Thaksin 2010 protests. She has denied that red shirts burned down about 30 buildings in Bangkok, and had armed men who killed a dozen soldiers, despite evidence to the contrary.
Likewise, the military has repeatedly stated it shot no one in breaking up the 2010 demonstrations, despite nearly 80 dead civilians. No one in the army has been prosecuted because Yingluck has been trying to repair relations with the generals who ousted her brother.
In the face of the current protests, Yingluck backed down and let the Senate kill the amnesty bill. Then her government added fuel to the fire. Her ministers said they would not respect any decision by the Constitutional Court on the legality of charter amendments they had passed in parliament. In defying the court, they showed clear contempt for constitutional checks and balances and placed themselves above the law.
Unfortunately, Suthep and his followers have not been much better. While claiming they are nonviolent, they have invaded government offices, damaging and stealing property in the process, and engaged in vicious fighting with police.
|Thailand's protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban
Suthep's demand and proposal for an unelected "People's Council" to govern in place of Yingluck are anti-democratic and illegal in that they are beyond the scope of the constitution, according to many scholars. He has refused to answer warrants for his arrest until his goals are achieved.
"Police won't dare arrest Suthep because they know there will be violence,'' said a bureaucrat who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorised to speak to the media.
Both sides in Thailand's political divide have mastered the ability to stage protests that undermine their opponents but corrode the rule of law. They both accuse each other of being lawless, but both are responsible for taking impunity to new heights. More than ever, lawlessness and impunity are now the norm.
Off the hook?
Back at the Criminal Court, Abhisit entered his not guilty plea and was released on bail.
"This is a selective prosecution, but nonetheless, it could have a positive impact towards ending the culture of impunity in this country,'' says Don Pathan, a security analyst who writes a column for The Nation newspaper.
Pathan says a former prime minister having to defend his actions in a court of law is a step forward.
Zawacki, however, disagrees. "It is clearly a selective and politicised prosecution, and so is likely to have a negative effect on the rule of law insofar as that is true. If prosecutions were initiated against all those for whom they're warranted, resulting in a far more balanced picture, the effect could be positive," he said.
Although Abhisit has said he will accept any punishment the court decides, including death, few believe he will ever see the inside of a prison cell.
"His lawyers will find some technicality to get him off the hook,'' Pathan predicts, because in Thailand, that's what almost always happens when you are rich or powerful.