With Wednesday's ruling by the Constitutional Court, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha is not only innocent of occupying an army welfare house inside the 1st Infantry Regiment, King's Guard, but he can also lawfully stay on where he and his family have lived since he served as army chief until he retired in 2014.
Many observers have said the ruling did not surprise them in the least. This is not the first time the court, appointed by the military regime in accordance with the 2017 charter, and endorsed by the military-leaning Senate, has cleared up political trouble for the prime minister. Before this, there was the incomplete oath-taking case and the ruling that Gen Prayut, while serving as premier after the 2014 coup, was not a "state official."
In its not-guilty verdict regarding the welfare house, the court judges cited a 2005 army regulation, which lets army chiefs stay on at a base after they retire "if they continue to serve the country well". The court said the regulation came into effect before Gen Prayut was army chief, and other former army commanders have also received the same benefits.
However, the court stopped short of explaining why a military regulation can overrule the country's supreme law.
More importantly, the verdict highlights irregularities in the military rules concerning welfare houses. How many such houses does the army now have to build for retired generals?
In a reply to a query by Thai language media, the army earlier this year said as many as 108 retired generals were living in "welfare" residences at the end of last year. Of that number, 86 are due to move out this year. The remaining 22, however, are retired generals who have "contributed to the country" and so exempt. Besides the PM, they comprise ministers, MPs, senators and other holders of political office. However, the army has refused to name these retired officers.
It's clear that this regulation giving privileges to retired generals needs a review to prevent abuse of taxpayers' money, and make sure those houses are lived in only by active officials.
There also seem to be contradictions between the military regulations on the houses. In the aftermath of the Korat shooting by a low-ranking soldier over a business conflict in a welfare housing project with his commander whom he gunned down, then army chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong ruled out letting retired officers live in welfare houses, citing an army regulation. He declared that all retired officers must leave army houses. So which regulation is right?
The controversial verdict has irritated many people but few have dared to speak out for fear of being held in contempt of court, which is punishable with a hefty fine and a jail term. Gen Prayut's case has also been compared to that of the late Samak Sundaravej in 2008 when the veteran politician was forced to step down over a meagre payment he received from a TV cooking show. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of the now-defunct Future Forward Party, dissolved by a court order over a loan saga, was also stripped of his MP status and banned from politics together with FFP executives.
Some angry observers may have felt that Wednesday's verdict was the last straw and they have suggested the new charter should see the court downgraded to come under the Supreme Court. This suggestion should be explored. And before the new constitution comes into effect, legal academics should clarify what is considered to be contempt of the court. Honest criticism and academic interpretations of a verdict should be allowed.