- - Sunday, February 14, 2016

BANGKOK — As its prime minister prepares to meet with President Obama at a high-profile summit of Southeast Asian leaders, Thailand’s coup-installed government is writing a new constitution that opposition parties and human rights groups fear will extend its domination backed by a new legislature stacked with pro-junta appointees.

Critics say the draft constitution will cement the power of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who took power in a military coup nearly two years ago and shows no signs of preparing to step aside.

Mr. Prayuth’s untimely push for a new constitution points up the balancing act the Obama administration has faced dealing with the new government. Bangkok has long been a key U.S. ally in the region, but the government’s anti-democratic tendencies and persistent courting by China have put heavy strains on the bilateral relationship. The political instability also has contributed to three straight years of falling exports.

The release of a proposed constitution, with parliamentary elections put off until 2017 when the current government’s hold on power is expected to increase, has sparked a sharp response.

“The draft charter has already been branded by opponents of the military government as a ‘dictator’s charter’ or the constitution that ‘cheats and steals the power of the people,’” the Bangkok Post said in an editorial Friday.

The revamped constitution may allow a planned National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee — nicknamed the “crisis panel” — to seize all executive and legislative power from the government and parliament in an emergency.

“The committee will get involved only after the country is at a dead end,” Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon said last year.

“We don’t want a coup to take place again,” said Mr. Prawit, who participated in a 2014 putsch that brought Mr. Prayuth, a former top general, to power.

Meechai Ruchupan, the 77-year-old chairman of the committee drafting the constitution, told reporters last month that it was meant to address long-standing weaknesses in Thai democracy and lawmaker misbehavior and acknowledged that some of the solutions may be too tough for the system.

“If we are to reform the country, we have to use strong medicine, even if political parties do not agree,” Mr. Meechai told the Reuters news agency in a recent interview. “I can’t promise it will be Thailand’s last constitution.”

The committee may be reconfigured because critics described it as a sinister virtual “state within a state,” including top figures in the army, air force and navy.

The government is dictating the drafting of what would be this Buddhist-majority country’s 20th constitution. Previous charters were trashed every time the military seized power or other problems arose. Each constitution survived an average of four years after the first one was written, when a coup abolished the absolute monarchy in 1932.

Many people are afraid to directly criticize the draft constitution because of the regime’s frequently shifting punishments against free speech, enforced by threats to seize assets and military trials for civilian dissidents who express themselves.

“I confirm that we will have an election in the year 2017, that’s for sure,” Mr. Prawit recently told reporters, indicating that even if the constitution is unpopular, elections will be held. A previous draft was rejected in September.

Squabbling has emerged over the newest draft, raising fears that elections may be delayed until 2018 or indefinitely — perhaps as part of a plot by the junta, according to some critics.

When Mr. Prayuth Chan-ocha organized the May 2014 coup, he repeatedly promised elections in 2015 and 2016. Those promises appear to be falling by the wayside.

“Do you want to have elections tomorrow? What will you do if bad people are elected?” he said to journalists Feb. 2. “Go ahead and criticize me. As if I care. You just wait and see. If the country ends up in ruins, don’t blame me.”

The prime minister grumbled at “stupid” reporters who asked about the constitution and other issues. “If you don’t want changes, we all should prepare to die. We will have to depart from this world, from the international community. No one would want to have a relationship with Thailand if we continue to be mired in conflict,” he said as he repeatedly slammed his hand on his lectern. “Don’t you know we are in for starvation?”

In another worrisome sign, according to democracy activists, the chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee also authored a 1991 constitution enabling an unelected general to become prime minister.

Outsiders and emergencies

Under the new constitution, an unelected “outsider” could become prime minister, endorsed by parliament, if a “crisis” arises.

Critics fear a pro-junta outsider will be boosted to become premier — perhaps Mr. Prayuth himself, though he denied wanting to stay on.

Parliament would have two houses, but its Senate may include a majority of government appointees.

“The junta is quite clear. Its powers will end, more or less, not with the next elected government, but only four years, perhaps more, after the latter had started its work,” Michael H. Nelson, a Faculty of Law research fellow at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, said in an analysis of the draft. “The military’s [current] direct rule of three years-plus will thereby be complemented by at least four years of indirect military rule.”

Additionally, the Constitutional Court will continue to decide the fates of politicians who fall afoul of the charter’s laws or if a “crisis” remains unresolved.

During the past decade, that Constitutional Court ruled against several elected politicians, effectively ending their careers. Similarly, the National Anti-Corruption Commission will continue its ability to ban candidates deemed unworthy or dishonest from office.

The government is already campaigning for a “yes” vote for the constitution, in a nationwide referendum tentatively scheduled for the end of July or early August.

After the referendum, the government-appointed National Legislative Assembly will weigh 10 “organic laws” on how to stage an election and procedures for the Constitutional Court and National Anti-Corruption Commission.

The draft charter meets “international standards with a Thai identity that can be used appropriately to solve past problems,” said government spokesman Col. Piyapong Klinphan.

The constitution’s supporters insist that it will stop corrupt politicians from reviving the previous elected government’s “dictatorship of the majority,” which is accused of looting this Southeast Asian nation’s investments and resources and leading to an extended period of factionalism and infighting.

Supporters of Mr. Prayuth’s coup point to the wealthy, populist Shinawatra clan, which has produced three prime ministers — Thaksin Shinawatra, his younger sister Yingluck and their brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat.

Thaksin Shinawatra is now an international fugitive dodging a two-year prison sentence for corruption during his 2001-2006 tenure.

Yingluck Shinawatra, currently barred from running for office, is free on $860,000 bail and is forbidden to leave Thailand during her trial at the Supreme Court’s Criminal Division for Political Office Holders on charges of negligence while overseeing her administration’s rice crop subsidies. On Friday, she held her first news conference since the 2014 coup and reiterated her innocence.

The constitution’s lengthy list of 270 sections is to prevent the Shinawatra family and their allies from being elected again and limit the power of big political parties, contrary to a popular 1997 constitution that the junta canceled after a 2006 coup.

“The drafting process has been overshadowed, throughout, by the compelling concern to take this opportunity to finally thwart the decade-plus influence of the Shinawatra family,” said Titipol Phakdeewanich, dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University. “It is more than likely that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s military junta will remain essentially in power, even if we have elections in 2017, albeit with a new prime minister,” Mr. Titipol said Sunday in an email interview.

If a widespread “no” vote damages the public referendum, the draft may be tweaked.

“Some kind of ‘settlement’ is needed between the ‘conservatives’ and the rural and urban working class and lower-middle-class voters whom Thaksin really brought into the political system,” said a scholar of Southeast Asia who asked not to be identified because of his research.

“My sense is that even the conservatives realize that elections are needed soon because the military is too backward, hopeless at government and an embarrassment,” the scholar said in an email interview Friday.

Mr. Prayuth staged his 2014 coup after weeks of political street clashes killed dozens of people. Society was so polarized that families often bickered at dinner tables because relatives supported opposing sides.

After his coup, Mr. Prayuth became prime minister and granted his ruling allies blanket amnesty from prosecution.

Weary of the spiraling political chaos and worried about Thailand’s dreary economy, many Thais are biding their time, hoping to fast-forward to the next election amid hopes that this country can eventually restore its democracy and repair its international image.

“I fear we are headed towards the political system of the People's Republic of China,” former academic Burin Kantabutra said Sunday in an email interview. “I think that post-charter, postelection Thai politics will be a train wreck,” Mr. Burin said.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s still-considerable number of supporters, known as Red Shirts, are expected to oppose the constitution.

“The Red Shirts will vote to reject this charter in the referendum,” Red Shirt Chairman Jatuporn Prompan told reporters Thursday.

Yingluck Shinawatra pressed the Prayuth government to expedite the constitutional process and hold elections, saying they were needed to boost growth and ease investor concerns about Thailand’s stability.

“You have to live with this constitution, so please make sure it fits with Thailand, it fits with the whole country,” she told Bloomberg News in an interview Friday at her home in Bangkok.

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