Hundreds of people have been summoned and forced to sign documents that allow the junta to seize their assets if they become involved with “any political movement.”
Stacks of case files clutter the headquarters of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is pursuing at least seven legal cases against the former government and threatening legal action against hundreds of former members of Parliament overthrown in the coup.
“We are setting an example about ethical conduct,” says Vicha Mahakun, a member of the commission. “I am destroying the patronage system. It is at the root of corruption.”
Others might call it death by paperwork, an effort by the junta to bury the political opposition in endless legal cases, in the courts and in the military-appointed Parliament applying a flexible, through-the-looking-glass interpretation of the law.
The junta’s law is whatever it decrees. Some 269 former members of Parliament overthrown in the coup are being threatened with legal action by Mr. Vicha’s office, proceedings that seem to have shaky legal standing since the system that politicians are accused of violating — the Constitution — was nullified by the generals when they seized power.
His office also led the prosecution of Yingluck Shinawatra, the former prime minister whose party was deposed. The military’s handpicked legislature impeached her retroactively last month, banning her from politics for five years.
Civilians who defy the junta are tried in military courts with no possibility of appeal.
The military has not said when it will relinquish power. But before any return to democratic rule, the generals and their allies in the Thai elite are seeking to legally dismantle the most popular political movement in modern Thai history, a new-money political machine founded by a cellphone tycoon,Thaksin Shinawatra, who challenged the old-moneyed elites.
The prosecution of the leaders of the political movement, which has won every election since 2001, has led to deep cynicism about the long-term consequences of military rule, especially the effects on the country’s legal system. The military says it staged its coup to maintain civil peace and order.
“They are burning the whole forest to catch one mouse,” said Chuwit Kamolvisit, a former member of Parliament who is neither in the Thaksin camp nor allied with the establishment powers. “The army is not sincere in cracking down on corruption.
“If they really wanted to tackle corruption, why are they only destroying one camp? There is corruption on both sides.”
There is dissension even within the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which since the coup has become a sort of prosecutor in chief.
Somlak Judkrabuanphol, an adviser at the commission who is also a law professor and a former Supreme Court judge, says political divisions have infected the courts to the point of a “pandemic in the judiciary.”
“The distortion of the law is worse than a gun pointed at you,” she said in an interview. “The distortion of the law affects everyone in the nation. Every citizen relies on the law.”
Ms. Somlak says she was disturbed by the decision of a criminal court last year to drop murder charges against a former prime minister backed by the establishment, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and his deputy. Mr. Abhisit was charged with authorizing the military to use weapons of war against protesters in 2010. More than 90 people were killed during the violence.
“I think this is outrageous,” she said. “The court suddenly dropped the case — they didn’t even investigate.”
Ms. Somlak said she also opposed the impeachment of Ms. Yingluck, the former prime minister and sister of Mr. Thaksin. The National Legislative Assembly did not have the authority to impeach her, she said. The junta has also not fully explained how a person who is no longer in power can be impeached.
Ms. Somlak, 74, is no insurgent. She was appointed to the anti-corruption commission by a military-backed government after the last coup in 2006. But she says the military could interpret her comments as threatening and fears that she, too, could be summoned by soldiers.
Mr. Vicha, whose office is in the same building as Ms. Somlak’s, says he is also fearful — of attacks by supporters of the Thaksin political movement, the so-called red shirts.
He changes cars every day, he said in the interview. The military, he said, “cannot protect me all of the time.”
He rejects the assertion made by the United States State Department and critics of the junta that the impeachment of Ms. Yingluck and the prosecution of her movement was politically driven.
“We are trying to show people that elections are not the only part of the democratic system,” he said in the interview in his office on the outskirts of Bangkok. “You must have people of good faith and people of ethical and good conduct.”
Mr. Vicha has previously expressed his skepticism of democracy inThailand, once calling elections “evil.”
Yet in a country where graft is endemic, Mr. Vicha’s caseload seems politically lopsided. No investigation for unusual wealth has been conducted into the chief of police, whose public disclosure documents showed total assets of $11 million, or his deputy, who claimed assets of $30 million.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the coup and a career military officer, declared $4 million in assets, including the equivalent of $1.84 million in cash, five cars, two Patek Philippe watches, three Rolexes and jewelry worth more than $200,000. Mr. Vicha said there were no immediate plans to investigate.
When asked to list the cases he considers priorities, Mr. Vicha mentioned two, including the awarding of $220,000 in compensation to the families of protesters and bystanders killed during the 2010 military crackdown. Mr. Vicha said he was investigating whether proper procedures were followed in the disbursement of the compensation.
He rejected the argument that procedural lapses in compensation to the bereaved would seem to be a minor offense in a country where the military last year abolished the Constitution and removed nearly every elected official from office.
“There are regulations for these payments,” he said. “There are laws.”
For critics of Mr. Vicha and the coup, the eight months of military rule have failed to mend rifts in society, and may have worsened prospects for national reconciliation.
But military rule has also disappointed some members of the political establishment who saw the coup as an opportunity to strengthen the rule of law.
“There were people who thought we had a genuine chance for reform,” said Korn Chatikavanij, a former finance minister and a senior member of the Democrat Party, which opposed the Yingluck government. “They were daydreaming. There are no real reforms going on.”
Mr. Korn argues that what Thailand needs is a leader “from outside the system who is genuinely committed to breaking up the system.”
He mentioned Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister who took power in May, and Joko Widodo, the recently elected president of Indonesia.
“Unless you break up the system,” Mr. Korn said, “we won’t be truly competitive and transparent.”