News analysis

Thai council rejects proposed Constitution

Mock ballot papers with the option "No" selected pasted on a statue in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Students had staged a protest against the military-backed draft Constitution in Bangkok on Saturday.
Mock ballot papers with the option "No" selected pasted on a statue in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Students had staged a protest against the military-backed draft Constitution in Bangkok on Saturday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Outcome guarantees country will remain under military rule for at least 7 more months

Thailand's junta-appointed National Reform Council (NRC) yesterday rejected the Constitution proposed by the regime by a vote of 135 to 105 with a few abstentions.

The outcome in effect guarantees that Thailand will remain under military rule for at least another seven months, and most probably much longer, as it restarts the process of drafting a new Constitution.

If the Constitution had been passed, it would have been put to a referendum in January and a general election could follow soon after, returning Thailand in theory to at least a token democratic civilian government early next year.

Now, the NRC stands dissolved, and will have to be reconstituted. Also, a new Constitution-drafting committee will be set up within 30 days, and the process begun anew. The new draft would have to be completed in 180 days. That takes the process deep into next year.

Ahead of yesterday's vote, the draft Constitution had been roundly condemned by political parties, which singled out a clause on setting up a special panel, which would include the military, to take control of the government during times of crisis. The clause legitimised military intervention, they argued.

The controversy is now moot as the draft has been rejected. But given that several former military men voted against it, analysts saw the outcome as orchestrated to buy more time in power for the military.

NRC member Sangsit Phiriyarangsan, who voted for the Constitution, said on television that those who had voted against it were afraid that an election would unleash a repeat of the chaos that has marked Thai politics since the 2006 military coup that ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

"They are in agreement that we should extend the junta's rule to govern the country," he said.

Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: "This is a convenient excuse for the military to stay in power. The draft charter appeared to be hugely controversial and had united political factions against it; now they don't have to be concerned with that."

Thailand's political divide shows little sign of healing, and a transition looms in the all-important monarchy as King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, grows increasingly frail.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak sees the Constitution-drafting process as being set up "to maintain military control over the political landscape during an indefinite interim".

"The military government intends to stay in office through 2016 and probably beyond as Thailand's royal transition takes place.

"The generals see themselves as the midwife of this transition," Dr Thitinan said in an e-mail response to questions.

"The government's longevity rests on a few pillars," he said. "Government corruption has to be negligible. Policy performance has to satisfy growth imperatives. And dissent has to be dealt with without undue violence."

He noted that though pressure is mounting, the regime has lasted more than 15 months, which is longer than contemporary standards of military rule.

The military seized power in May last year from the elected government of then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister, after street protests led by one-time Democrat Party stalwart Suthep Thaugsuban. He accused her of being her brother's proxy, and sabotaged a snap election to force a constitutional stalemate.

The military abolished the 2007 Constitution and promulgated a new interim charter, in which it gave itself amnesty for launching the coup d'etat. It muzzled political parties and launched a wide crackdown against dissent and criticism of the monarchy.

It is currently prosecuting Yingluck over billions of baht in losses incurred by an extravagant rice purchase scheme that helped her sweep to a landslide win in 2011.

The draft Constitution voted down yesterday would have been Thailand's 20th since it made the change from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2015, with the headline 'Thai council rejects proposed Constitution'. Print Edition | Subscribe