Oath gaffe a costly lesson for Prayut
While the royal blessing has appeared to ease pressure on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha over his incomplete oath-taking, his predicament is still ongoing.
The Office of the Ombudsman this week decided to forward a complaint about the failure of Gen Prayut and his cabinet ministers to recite the complete oath of office to the Constitutional Court, petitioning it to consider if the prime minister should be disqualified for not following the charter in accordance with Section 161 and also for violating the charter rights stipulated in Section 213.
Gen Prayut has been under pressure since the issue emerged during the policy statement in parliament in July. As curiosity mounted, the prime minister kept mum on how he would find a way out and, without appearing in parliament, he failed to clarify the issue to the opposition. When meeting with top bureaucrats, the general merely said that he would take "sole responsibility".
The royal message, or the speech His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn gave to Gen Prayut and the cabinet during the July 16 swear-in ceremony, was seen as a form of moral support from the palace. The bestowal was unprecedented.
The pro-Prayut side took the opportunity to ask for a political truce from the opposition with the reason that any further action would be tantamount to drawing the high institution into politics. But the opposition ignored the call, saying the royal message has nothing to do with the oath-taking saga. The opposition, comprising seven parties, still submitted a motion for a debate in parliament on the prime minister's oath gaffe. Even if the motion, without a no-confidence vote, cannot do serious harm to the prime minister and the administration, it can effectively open Gen Prayut's wounds and discredit him for failing to set an example as a good leader by abiding by the law, and in this case, the highest law.
And even though the opposition cannot harm the prime minister over his oath-taking saga, the Constitutional Court can. The court is expected to decide some time next month whether it will accept the complaint from the Ombudsman's Office. However, some analysts believe that Prime Minister Prayut will eventually survive the political storm, but the gaffe has caused political damage. Nobody knows the real reason the prime minister decided to omit the last sentence of the oath -- a commitment to uphold and abide by the constitution. Was it intentional because of his quick temper, or did he actually forget?
The gaffe serves as a lesson for the strongman. He has to learn that now he has started down a democratic path, he will face scrutiny every step he takes, be it in his personal matters or state affairs. He will not have any authoritative powers like over the past five years when he was the leader of the military regime.
The opposition is also being more than stringent in its checks-and-balances role. The motion that it is planning, while a bit softer than the no-confidence censure, targets Prime Minister Prayut's weakness: a lack of legitimacy to run the country. With his short-tempered character, Gen Prayut is emotionally vulnerable. But not all people agree with the opposition's tactics. Some people caution that it would be more useful for the opposition to focus on issues like graft or a lack of competence, instead of just attacking the leader.
The oath-taking saga should be recorded in our political history. It's the first case of an incomplete oath the 70 years since the 1949 charter which had a clause stipulating that the oath-taking took effect. However, the highest law does not clearly mention any penalties in the case of an incomplete oath. Some people have likened the gaffe to that of former US president Barack Obama, when a word of his inauguration speech was spoken out of sequence. The mistake triggered a debate over whether his oath-taking was valid, and eventually, Mr Obama had to re-take the oath of office to quell speculation.
In Thailand, the oath-taking tradition dates back to the Ayutthaya period. It required members of the royal family and aristocrats to utter words of allegiance in a show of loyalty before the king. That oath requirement was extended to the political realm in 1949, obliging the government to take the oath before beginning duty. Also required to participate in such a ceremony are privy councillors, judges, members of parliament and senators who take the oath under Section 115 of the charter. The oaths that they take are the same as the one that the prime minister gives.
In theory, oath-taking should be sacred. But if we look back on the past, we find that several leaders, ministers and MPs did not follow the oaths that they gave. Instead, many corrupted and violated the law, with some landing in prison, while others, who lacked strong evidence against them, managed to get off scot-free.
Oath-taking is not just a formality. It's a necessity that ensures that those taking the oath stay truly committed to it. It's sad that many of those who took the oath did not keep their pledges. Otherwise, the country would not be troubled with graft that is like a cancer that jeopardises our health.
Chairith Yonpiam is an assistant news editor of the Bangkok Post.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.