Thailand’s New Charter: Soldier’s Dream, Civilian Nightmare
Thailand’s new proposed constitution, released last week by the junta’s Constitution Drafting Committee, is pretty much as expected. The 20th since 1932, it is a clear demonstration of the stranglehold the military has on the country, and will continue to have into the foreseeable future unless there is a major rebellion among the urban middle class, which doesn’t seem likely.
The new document is to be submitted to the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National Legislative Assembly, sometime this month. If it is turned down by the assembly, the junta will be in power for another year while a new version is being written. A national referendum supposedly is slated for February after ratification by the legislature. But given the language, it seems impossible that rank-and-file citizens, especially the millions in the north and northeast of the country who largely remain loyal to long-deposed former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, would agree to its provisions.
The first draft was created by the drafting committee, which has amended it on the advice of the National Reform Council, consisting of several experts to spearhead reform. It is now being vetted for approval by the “National Strategic Reform Commission" – in which all commanders of the army, navy, air force, and police sit alongside experts appointed by the parliament.
A Super Junta Takes Charge
The NSRC is expected to be a kind of “super junta” designed to oversee and control the elected government. It has the power to veto any decisions made by any officials who might subsequently be elected and has the authority to initiate additional “reform” policies that successive elected governments will be obliged to follow. What’s more, if the NSRC decides the country is in crisis, it can intervene “as necessary.” It is to be in place for five years although its term of duty can be extended by fiat. Thus, in the unlikely event of a democratically elected government, its room to maneuver to determine policy is certain to be circumscribed.
“The language is worryingly vague so it draws no limits to the exercise of this ultimate power,” wrote Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a constitutional law scholar in Thailand, writing in New Mandala. “Moreover, this emergency power receives absolute impunity under the new Constitution. The NSRC is then perceived by the public as an attempt by the junta to linger on after a general election. Under the new constitution, the military does not have to carry out a coup d’état because the coup has already been written in to law.”
Otherwise, the new charter differs little in tone from the draft released several months ago, making it clear that citizen rights are not a priority – instead containing multiple references to the monarchy and noting that the “duties of citizens,” particularly with reference to the king, take priority over their rights.
Writing Finis for the Thaksins
Article 189 and other sections of the constitution outlaw “populist policies” such as those put in place by Thaksin in the poverty-stricken northeast of the country and which have cemented Thaksin’s popularity with a majority of the electorate despite the fact that the military drove him from power in 2006.
As expected, the junta has written in language barring from office Thaksin and other members of the Pheu Thai party, driven from power by Prayuth’s coup. Those who have been arrested or banned for political activity will be barred for life from politics. Almost all of those arrested in the 2014 coup and subsequent crackdown were members of Pheu Thai or allied with it or previous Thaksin-led parties.
In a bid for additional insurance against the return of any Thaksin forces, impeachment provisions are stiffened. While impeachment already automatically revokes the political rights of a convicted politician for five years, under the new constitution, impeached politicians are barred from taking office permanently – an obvious move to make sure that Thaksin’s popular sister Yingluck, who served as prime minister from August of 2011 to May of 2014 when Prayuth deposed her. She was later impeached by a parliament that she never led, put in place by Prayuth.
The parliament is to be composed of 300 constituency MPs and 150-170 national party list MPs. The numbers are to be adjusted according to the national vote for each party and the number of elected constituency MPs, so that it will be a more proportional representative system. However, the military has ensured that the parliament will have reduced powers.
Prayuth Makes Sure he Keeps Job
Coup leader and former Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha ensures his continued reign as prime minister through a provision that the premier need not be an elected member of parliament if supported by two-thirds of the body although his term is limited to eight years. All cabinet ministers must have bachelor’s degrees, step to make sure vast segments of the population from the northeast are unable to run.
The Senate is to be comprised of 77 elected senators from each province, with another 123 appointed by the military and the elites. Nominees are to be drawn from different sources including high-ranking civil servants and military top brasses, representatives of professional guilds and non-governmental organizations, and ethical experts from various fields. The senate will have extensive powers to appoint the Electoral Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Constitutional Judges.
The senate is also empowered to appoint the Human Rights Commission, opening the opportunity for the appointment of military and police officers on board or civilians likely to be in favor of their actions. As with the temporary charter put in place after the 2014 coup, all acts of the junta are deemed to be legal and they are exempted from prosecution in any future government.
The committee has abandoned the controversial National Ethics and Citizen councils, which had been assigned the duty of screening the ethical standards of political office holders.
The second part, elections and public administration, remains largely unchanged from the previous version. In April, the committee proposed that, for better transparency, the judicial commission that oversees administration, promotion, and disciplinary action of judicial personnel, should consist of no less than one-third of non-judge members. The proposal stirred a huge backlash and the committee had to retreat.
The uproar stemmed from the fear that more lay membership would allow political influence in the administration of justice – despite the fact that the courts played a pivotal role in driving a series of Thaksin surrogate governments from power, often on the thinnest of pretexts. However, the judiciary warned the drafting committee against what it said was any threat to its independence.
Judicial Turf Unchanged or Even Expanded
The draft commands the Administrative Court to establish a new division of fiscal and budgetary disciplines. All watchdog agencies are placed under the title “the Constitutional Agency to Audit the Exercise of State Power.” The word “independent,” written into the 1997 Constitution, has
Many of the details to be left to the parliament, to be decided in the form of “organic laws” and statutes. For instance, the section titled “Reform and Reconciliation,” removes the reconciliation segment from the document, to be a new law prepared by the parliament.
“Although it has become less obsessed with moral absolutism, the constitution draft reflects more obviously the wish of the elites to entrench their power in Thai politics,” Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang wrote.