Misguided Section 44 use

Misguided Section 44 use

Finally, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has resorted to the use of the draconian Section 44 in handling the long-standing case of Wat Phra Dhammakaya or, to be more exact, the embattled Phra Dhammajayo, the former abbot whose whereabouts remain unclear.

In Gen Prayut's view, this law is a necessary -- if not unavoidable -- tool for such a long-delayed case that make people doubt the efficacy of the officials involved. The temple's former abbot Phra Dhammajayo is wanted on charges related to the multi-billion-baht Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative embezzlement scandal. Arrest warrants were also issued against the former abbot and accomplices for alleged forest encroachment as some meditation facilities run by the temple were deemed to sit in protected forest in Phangnga, Nakhon Ratchasima and Loei provinces.

But the elusive Phra Dhammajayo has refused to surrender while disappearing from public view for at least eight months. At the same time, police and officials from the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) have made several failed attempts to bring him in to face the charges. The officials also criticised the temple for using its disciples as human shields for months.

With the special power coming into effect on Wednesday, the temple was cordoned off as a strictly controlled area in the pre-dawn hours yesterday while a combined force, including provincial police, military and DSI officials conducted a raid and entered the temple compound in search of, and, hopefully to arrest, the fugitive monk. The operation was ongoing at press time.

Justice Minister Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana insisted yesterday there would be no negotiations with the temple in pursuing the law. Several negotiations in the past ended in failure without any progress.

However, the use of this contentious law triggers a serious question or questions about the rule of law in this society. It's quite unnecessary for the state to use this special law for a person faced with simple charges like embezzlement or even a criminal act.

The fact that the case has dragged on with this long delay makes those involved the subject of criticism which at the same time has put more pressure on the government.

The use of Section 44, called the "dictator's law" by foreign media, is tantamount to resigning ourselves to the fact that there is something very wrong in our justice system. To say that the temple is so popular, with so many disciples, and there's a need for the government to avoid violent confrontation is no excuse. All should be equal under the law. If the former abbot broke the law, indict him, and try him in court.

Why do we have to worry about his whereabouts and look for him? If he cannot be found, as is the case right now, we can still try him in absentia, and if found guilty, he cannot escape the rule of law.

The most famous case where the court delivered a verdict in absentia was in 2008 when the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Positions sentenced former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who skipped bail and sought self-imposed exile instead of two years in prison after being found guilty of abuse of authority in helping his wife win a bid for a Ratchadaphisek property.

Therefore, it would be better for the government to stick to the regular laws and legal tools in tackling the temple saga which would make its move more justifiable. Instead, the use of the draconian and contentious Section 44, which may provide a chance for the temple to claim that the case is being pursued with ill objectives given the temple's popularity, which has in turn brought massive wealth to the establishment. In any case, the government has every right to use normal laws and it should do so.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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