Court orders Thai leader removed

By Thomas Fuller / New York Times News Service

BANGKOK — A Thai court on Wednesday ordered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra removed from office, a highly divisive move and a victory for a powerful opposition movement that has sought to overthrow the government for six months.

The Constitutional Court ruled that Yingluck abused her power when she transferred a civil servant to another post more than three years ago. The court ordered her to step down immediately along with all members of her Cabinet who were in office at the time of the transfer.

Yingluck’s party called the decision a “new form of coup d’état.”

Leaders of Yingluck’s party quickly announced that a deputy prime minister, Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan, would become acting prime minister.

It was the third time since 2006 that a prime minister representing the political movement founded by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, has been removed by court order. The movement, which has its power base in the provinces, has won every election since 2001 but has antagonized the Bangkok establishment, a struggle that is at the heart of Thailand’s eight years of political crisis.

Thailand for decades was considered an island of pluralism, freedom and strong economic growth — especially in contrast with its neighbors — but its economy has suffered during the recent turmoil, and leaders have warned of civil war.

The court’s decision, which highlights its overtly political role, throws into question elections announced for July 20, which the governing party was expected to win because of its strong support in the northern provinces.

Bhokin Bhalakula, a member of the governing party, Pheu Thai, told reporters at the party’s headquarters that the court decision was part of a “new form of coup d’état in order to establish a new regime and destroy the hope of the people who want to see the country progress democratically and with rule of law.”

Niwattumrong, the commerce minister who was named acting prime minister, is a former executive in Thaksin’s corporate empire. His appointment is likely to exacerbate tensions with the anti-government movement, which wants to eradicate Thaksin’s influence from the country.

Verapat Pariyawong, a lawyer and prominent commentator, said the court’s removal of Yingluck raised the prospect of more violence. At least 20 people have been killed in political violence since the governing party set off protests in November by trying to ram through a bill giving political amnesty to Thaksin that would erase corruption cases against him and allow him to return from self-imposed exile.

The anti-government movement, which is armed, continues to block access to the prime minister’s office and a number of other government facilities in Bangkok.