Thailand's new draft Constitution unveiled

Proposed charter gives ruling junta sweeping powers over next Parliament for five years

Constitution drafting committee chairman Meechai Ruchupan with a copy of the draft Constitution yesterday.
Constitution drafting committee chairman Meechai Ruchupan with a copy of the draft Constitution yesterday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Thailand's draft Constitution was unveiled yesterday after amendments that will give the ruling junta a major say over the next legislature for five years.

The junta will get to appoint almost all 250 members of the future Senate, which will include six seats reserved for military and police chiefs.

Meanwhile, a provision would allow the House of Representatives to pick a non-elected individual as prime minister in the event of a deadlock.

"Democracy is not giving supremacy to the people, but giving supremacy to benefits for the people," charter drafting commission chairman Meechai Ruchupan told reporters yesterday, citing the saying of a monk.

Critics argue that the draft merely prolongs the power of the Thai military, which took over in a May 2014 coup, by creating the conditions for an unstable coalition government.

Dr Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of Ubon Ratchathani University's political science faculty, warned: "If this is passed, it might worsen the situation, and make the country more divided."

Although the draft charter will be put to a referendum on Aug 7, the military government has tried to control discussion about it.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam indicated earlier this month that public debates about the draft charter would be illegal unless conducted by the Election Commission. An official from the election body has warned that anyone found to be distributing distorted information to influence the vote could be jailed and fined.

Last week, a former member of parliament from the erstwhile ruling Puea Thai party, Mr Worachai Hema, was summoned by the military for "attitude adjustment" after criticising the draft charter.

If passed, this draft will become Thailand's 20th Constitution in its 84-year-old democratic history. The current junta rules through an interim Constitution which grants it absolute power.

This is the second draft Constitution drawn up since the coup. The first, also drawn up by a handpicked body and containing clauses that limited the power of elected politicians, was rejected by a reform council last year even before it was put to a referendum.

It is not clear what the alternatives are if the charter is rejected in the plebiscite. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha insisted last month that the much-delayed election would be held next year, even if the draft charter did not pass the referendum. He has not said how this could be done.

The junta argues that unstable conditions within Thailand require it to continue to play a role in the future administration. Since coming to power, it has vowed to clamp down on corruption, shape up Thai bureaucracy and clean up the police force, but has made no particular mention of military reform.

Asean's second-largest economy has been riven by political conflict over the past decade.

Former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was unseated by a Constitutional Court verdict shortly before her government was ousted by the 2014 coup, is now on trial for negligence over a policy enacted by her government.

Her brother Thaksin Shinawatra was similarly ousted from premiership in 2006 and lives abroad to evade a jail sentence.

Puea Thai and its previous iterations draws much of its support from the rural populations in the north and north-east of Thailand, unlike many in urban Bangkok and the south, who supported the 2014 military takeover.

Analysts say these faultlines will continue to fester as long as no attempt is made to address the glaring inequalities in the country.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 30, 2016, with the headline Thailand's new draft Constitution unveiled. Subscribe