Another court blow

The government suffered its third justice-administered setback in 24 hours on Wednesday as the Constitution Court kicked Public Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsab out of office.

Judges even back-dated Mr Chaiya's dismissal to March 6, for failure to declare his wife's holding in a company.

Mr Chaiya said he didn't know he had to report the fact that Mrs Churai holds 50 per cent of a private company - 25,000 shares worth 2.5 million baht.

Any such holdings by a spouse or children above 5 per cent of the total value of a company must be reported to the National Counter Corruption Commission within 30 days of assuming office.

Since Mr Chaiya was sworn in and missed the March 7 deadline for reporting, the judges ordered his dismissal from the government as effective on that date.

The dismissal from the cabinet of Mr Chaiya is not just a further political blow.

As minister, Mr Chaiya was a lightning rod of controversy as he took action that effectively halted and tried to reverse so-called "compulsory licensing" of drugs - the fancy term for busting patents so that the government does not have to pay intellectual property charges.

Several civil groups had banded together to try to impeach the minister. In addition, he faced a fightback from several civil servants he transferred away from the compulsory licensing issue.

But his dismissal is more than another indirect victory for anti-government NGOs. Mr Chaiya, a provincial powerhouse in Nakhon Pathom, east of Bangkok, is what political organisers call a major financier of the ruling People Power party (PPP) and also a personal favourite of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who still wields major behind-the-scenes influence.

Mr Chaiya said from the beginning that if he were ordered dismissed from the cabinet, he would insist his elder brother, Padermchai, be appointed to succeed him.

That leaves Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej in a tight spot when he begins what appears to be an inevitable cabinet reshuffle in coming days. He is under strong pressure from both within the PPP and the opposition to get rid of under-performing and controversial ministers, and to appoint competent replacements, to try to regain authority lost in the past several months of political chaos.

He has three basic choices: Bow to the "party financier" on the public health ministry, ignore or try to negotiate with him and appoint someone else - or dissolve parliament and call yet another election.

Mr Samak gave no hint of his preference on Wednesday. Before the results of Mr Chaiya's trial were announced, he said he was unworried by court decisions against his government on Wednesday - to red-card ex-House speaker Yongyuth Tiyapairat and ban him from politics for five years, and to rule that Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama and the cabinet had acted against the constitution in supporting the Cambodian bid to list the Preah Vihear temple as a Unesco-sponsored World Heritage Site.

The premier said he would make no direct comment on his next actions until Sunday, when he speaks to the nation on his weekly morning TV show.

He got strongly conflicting advice from all sides on Wednesday about whether to call a snap election. Even within the PPP, opinion was divided. Only Mr Samak has the power to dissolve the House.