The Eternal Auditor-General: Why Thailand’s ‘Duck Lady’ Won’t Retire That Easily

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 20, 2010

On Tuesday the Administrative Court has decided that auditor-general Khunying Jaruvan Maintaka, nicknamed ‘Ying Ped’ (‘duck lady’) cannot exercise any power or authority and has to step down from her position (as reported in The Nation, Bangkok Post and Matichon today). The court also turned a previous order by her that revoked the appointment of the deputy auditor-general, Pisit Leelawichiropas, as her successor. This order to revoke was issued on August 18 earlier this year. The catch? Jaruvan has turned 65 years old on July 5, thus has overstayed at her post and shouldn’t have been allowed to exercise any powers.

This for now ends a legal battle over the top post at the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) and Jaruvan’s almost eternal tenure that is scattered with controversies (just look here how often her name pops up at Bangkok Pundit). To understand the issue, we have to go all the way back to the first Thaksin administration, when she was appointed as auditor-general in 2002. She quickly gained a reputation for being forceful when examine the budgets of past and present governments. In June 2003 she was hit with a petition being filed at the Constitutional Court by senators claiming that her nomination was unconstitutional. The court ruled in 2004 that her appointment was indeed irregular but did not forced her to step down from her post. Despite calls that the whole nomination procedure has to start all over again, Jaruvan refused to resign and said that she can only be removed by “royal command”.

Jaruvan carried on with her work as auditor-general, revealing many budgeting wrongdoings of the Thaksin administration in the process until she retired on September 30, 2004. When the State Audit Commission approved a new auditor-general in May 2005 and seek royal approval, the palace unprecedentedly did not endorse the new nomine. This has led many observers to the interpretation that the King has made use of Article 7 of the 1997 Constitution, which is seen by many a clause for royal intervention in politics. (The call for royal intervention was also a popular demand by the PAD back in 2006 to replace Thaksin with a caretaker government. This was later dismissed by the King in a royal speech, in which he said that such a move would be “undemocratic” and “irrational”). After a letter by the king’s private secretary advising to search for a solution of the problem, the SAC reinstated Jaruvan in February 2006.

Then on September 18, 2006 Thaksin initially wanted Jaruvan to step down from her post again at the end of the month, but this plan was never realized because a day later the military coup happened. Despite the reorganizations and dissolving of many state organizations, the OAG was left untouched. Furthermore, it was announced that Jaruvan’s tenure was extended to September 30, 2007 where she would then complete a maximum term of five years – article 33 of the Auditor General Act of 1999 states that an auditor-general can only stay for one term. Also the same announcement urged the SAC to find a successor within 90 days. But no successor was appointed and Jaruvan stayed on beyond September 30, 2007.

The current legal battle ensued over Jaruvan’s nomination for her replacement. On April 9, 2009 she tipped her deputy Pisit Leelawichiropas to take over the post. All seemed set to be a smooth transition until August 18 of this year when Jaruvan suddenly changed her mind and ordered to cancel Pisit’s appointment. As earlier mentioned, she made this call on August 18, way past her mandatory retirement age when she turned 65 years on July 5. This is how this case ended up in court. Jaruvan argued in court the reason to cancel Pisit’s crowning as the next auditor-general was that he made “verbal threats”, intimidated low level staff and was generally acting in a way that “would seriously damage and affect the work in the Office of the Auditor-General” (source: Matichon, Oct 6, 2010). Now, that Pisit wouldn’t be amused by such allegations is understandable and unsurprisingly, the mood between the two has increasingly deteriorated since Jaruvan’s change of mind as this snippet reveals:

The latest flare-up took place on Monday during a meeting of 40 executives and 20 staff members called by Mr Pisit. The khunying reportedly stormed into the meeting and the two rivals battled for the chairperson’s seat and microphone in a manner totally unbecoming of officials of their high status. Obviously, both Khunying Jaruvan and Mr Pisit did not appear to mind if the baffled officials present would be offended. Nor did they care for the members of the media present. Perhaps wrangling has become a habit and they no longer feel anything unusual or wrong about it.

Major farce at audit office,” Bangkok Post, September 23, 2010

After the verdict, Jaruvan has announced to appeal against the ruling. She repeatedly claims not to cling on to her post and “she simply did not want to be charged with dereliction of duty for stepping down while no official replacement was appointed“, making a reference to article 33 of the Auditor General Act of 1999 that requires a new officially appointed successor in order for the incumbent to make room. But the court has referenced article 34 instead, in which that an auditor-general has to be replaced if he or she either dies, runs for a political office, is being dismissed by the SAG board or, in her case, has reached 65 years. To emphasize this verdict even more, the judge said this memorable statement:

“If the interpretation goes that way [that the CNS order overrides the state audit law on the auditor-general’s qualifications], it would mean an auditor-general who is dead, has resigned, is running in an election to be an MP or senator, or has become a drug addict would still be able to carry on working as auditor-general,” said chief judge Somchai Wattanakarun in reading out the verdict.

Jaruvan Vows To Hang On Despite Ruling“, Bangkok Post, October 20, 2010

Even though the court has effectively told Jaruvan to leave, this won’t be the last thing we’ll hear about this case. Hopefully, it won’t drag on as long as the other controversies surrounding her persona in the past, but she sure has the audacity to somehow wrangle through after all these years between so many different change of systems and governments. To adapt a popular saying: It ain’t over until the Duck Lady sings!