Court Cases Put New Thai Government to the Test

Seth Mydans|The New York Times

Just five months after a military junta handed back power through a parliamentary election, Thailand’s latest try at democracy is being severely tested by street demonstrations and a barrage of court cases.

On Thursday, the foreign minister, Noppadon Pattama, was forced to resign after nationalist furor over a centuries-old dispute with Cambodia regarding the ownership of a 900-year-old Hindu temple on the border of the two countries.

The temple dispute has become a vehicle for growing pressure on the government as the divisions that led to a coup in September 2006 have begun to resurface.

The coup, which deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had the support of much of Bangkok’s elite and middle class, which protested for months, accusing him of corruption and abuse of power.

Through his populist policies, Mr. Thaksin had harnessed the support of the rural majority to become the most popular prime minister in Thailand’s history. At the same time, the establishment saw its influence slipping as a new order asserted itself.

Mr. Thaksin’s rule exposed what one commentator, Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University, called “an irreconcilable conflict” between the aspirations and needs of the poor and the middle class.

The coup was intended to reverse this shift, but the election last December put Mr. Thaksin’s allies in power, and the nation remained as divided as ever.

Street demonstrations like the ones before the coup have been held almost daily for more than a month. They are led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, an unaffiliated opposition group.

Now there is a new player — the courts — with activist roots that go back to the annulment of an election Mr. Thaksin won a few months before he was removed in the coup.

Although the election last December produced a government with strong ties to Mr. Thaksin, the courts have become a political counterweight.

In addition, the various constitutional bodies created to monitor corruption, elections and the law are now mostly led by people who supported his ouster.

On Wednesday, the Constitutional Court disqualified Chaiya Sasomsup, the public health minister, from office for violating asset-disclosure rules.

Mr. Noppadon’s resignation on Thursday was two days after the Constitutional Court found that he had violated the Constitution by reaching a compromise with Cambodia without due consultation.

Also on Tuesday, the Supreme Court convicted one of Mr. Thaksin’s associates, Yongyuth Tiyapairat, a former speaker of the house, of electoral fraud and banned him from politics for five years. If the Election Commission finds that he was acting in his party’s capacity in the electoral fraud, the party itself could be forced to dissolve, creating a government crisis.

Mr. Thaksin’s political future has been the subject of debate since he was overthrown. His connections, his electoral popularity and his huge wealth seem to point to a renewed political dominance. But as the leaders of the coup appear to have intended, Mr. Thaksin could be crippled for some time by a battery of court cases against him.

Among them, the Supreme Court heard testimony on Tuesday in a trial of Mr. Thaksin and his wife, Pojaman, on charges related to her purchase of land in Bangkok while he was in power.