The Latest on Southeast Asia: September 1, 2022

Last week, Thailand’s constitutional court directed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to temporarily step down while the court determines whether he has reached the end of his term limit. The 2017 constitution stipulates an eight-year term limit for prime ministers. A group of 172 lawmakers submitted a petition to the court arguing that Prayuth’s term officially started when he was formally inducted as prime minister after leading a military coup in 2014. Some of Prayuth’s supporters counter that his term should only be counted from 2017, when the current constitution was adopted, while others say it began when he was elected prime minister in 2019.

Prayuth has respected the court’s order by stepping aside as prime minister, but has said he remains defense minister in the meantime. Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy prime minister, will serve as acting prime minister until a final decision is made. During his years in power, Prayuth has survived four no-confidence votes, most recently in July. An opinion poll conducted in August found that 66 percent of respondents were in favor of Prayuth ending his term this month. Prayuth has seen low public approval ratings amid a struggling economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Prayuth has 15 days to submit a counter statement to defend his continuation as prime minister once he receives a copy of the complaint. It is not immediately clear how long it could take for the court to make a final decision. The constitutional court has historically sided with the government. Whatever the decision, it will affect the upcoming election, scheduled to take place before March 2023.

In other news, the former prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, was found guilty on seven counts of money laundering, abuse of power, and criminal breach of trust for embezzling millions of dollars from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a development fund that he set up in 2009. The federal court of Malaysia, the country’s highest court, maintained his 12-year prison sentence and he began his sentence at Kajang prison in Kuala Lumpur.

Najib had transferred $9.4 million from SRC International, a subsidiary of 1MDB, to his own personal bank account. Investigators say that nearly $4.5 billion was stolen overall from the fund by Najib’s associates. Although Najib was found guilty in 2020, he was granted bail and has been appealing his case ever since. Once the guilty verdict was announced, he requested a retrial of his case, alleging the judge’s decision was biased; however, his claim was dismissed in court. There is a possibility that Najib’s sentence could end early if granted a pardon from current king, Sultan Abdullah, or his successor. Just a week after Najib lost his final appeal, his wife, Rosmah Mansor, was found guilty in a separate corruption case and sentenced to 10 years in jail.

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