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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 25, 2007
Draft constitution faces uphill battle in Thailand
By Ron Corben

BANGKOK - Thailand's draft constitution faces a difficult national referendum in September, with provisions aimed at limiting the influence of political parties and the executive branch and amendments to the previous charter that allow for an appointed rather than elected Senate.

The draft, released for public debate last week by the military-appointed 35-member Constitution Drafting Committee, comes seven months after elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra

was overthrown in a military coup. He stands accused by the military of corruption, sowing national divisions and abusing his powers under the 1997 constitution. Lese majeste charges filed by the coup makers against the exiled premier were dropped this month by a criminal court.

Since their takeover last September, the military coup makers have limited the public's role in the political process, alarming the established political parties and pro-democracy groups. The new constitution will be Thailand's 18th since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

If passed in its proposed form, the new charter will reduce the number of elected members of Parliament from 500 to 400 and limit any prime minister's tenure to a maximum of eight years, or two four-year terms. At the same time, it will make it easier for individual politicians to switch political parties in the lead-up to an election, which Thai history has shown undermines the influence of the political-party system.

Political analysts say the new charter clearly aims to prevent a recurrence of the concentration of political power that occurred under Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party, which built up a massive majority in Parliament.

"The first draft of the new charter is designed to prevent the monopolization of Thai politics that was seen under overthrown prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's five-year rule," political commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak recently wrote in a local newspaper. "It is practically revenge on the so-called Thaksin regime and a rejection of the hard-won principles enshrined in the previous 1997 'people's charter'."

The 1997 charter was a progressive reaction to the country's tumultuous political past, which in recent years has vacillated between military and democratic rule. After the bloody crackdown by the military in 1992 on pro-democracy protests, spurred partly by the military appointment of a non-elected prime minister, the 1997 constitution aimed to keep the military permanently out of politics.

Overseeing that constitution's drafting was an elected - not appointed - drafting assembly, which solicited suggestions from a wide cross-section of the grassroots population, and the draft was widely debated before being presented to Parliament. Already the new document has been greeted with skepticism and criticism and as a backward step in the country's stop-and-go efforts to promote democracy.

Kraisak Choonhavan, a former elected senator, says the proposal for a non-elected Senate will be widely regretted by pro-democracy advocates. "The issue which is very worrisome is that they want the Senate to be a rubber stamp - meaning appointed. Can you believe that in a democracy? Such things are clearly a regression," Kraisak said.

Democratic resentment
Others are simply looking at the new charter to overcome the perceived weaknesses in the 1997 constitution that enabled Thaksin to concentrate political power. Narudh Chevamahara, a 22-year-old economics student at Chulalongkorn University, wants the new charter to avoid a repeat of the previous administration's failings.

"The last constitution had loopholes the government used to corrupt or basically cheat the people. [So] each loophole [should] be closed down," said Narudh. "What worries me is the people might have an anti-government sentiment and they might end up saying okay, since the government is doing a bad job, and they might say okay, this constitution would be as bad as the government - and simply reject it. I think the people have to study more on this constitution before judging whether it is good or not."

Already a range of groups from pro-Thaksin supporters to anti-military and coup groups, academics and civil society organizations have voiced their opposition to the charter. Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD) secretary general Suriyasai Katasila told The Nation newspaper that the constitution would weaken "people's power" as well as that of democratically elected politicians.

At the same time, the new charter does provide room for the people to check and balance politicians and propose new laws. For instance, the number of signatures required to launch a possible impeachment motion against wayward politicians has been reduced from 50,000 under the previous charter to 20,000 under the proposed new one. The same number of signatures is required for the people to propose new laws to Parliament.

The new charter also raises the profile of the judiciary, which was allegedly undermined under Thaksin's rule. Senior judges will have unprecedented authority to select and approve commissioners of the so-called independent institutions, including the Election Commission and a revamped National Counter Corruption Commission. A special 11-person committee, including the prime minister, the parliamentary president, the Senate president, and senior judges will be set up to resolve national crises.

"Many people may think judges are much more honest and credible than politicians. But too much power centered in the courts could eventually result in a possible corruption of the courts - and abuse by the various courts themselves," wrote popular newspaper commentator Pravit Rojanaphruk.

Supavud Saicheua, chief economist for Bangkok-based Phatra Securities, notes that Thailand's earliest possible return to democracy will require the draft constitution being backed by a public referendum.

"In this way, the Thai people are becoming aware that the new constitution need not necessarily be better than the previous one written meticulously in 1997," he said. "Indeed, the new constitution can be worse. But the Thai people will have to live with it anyway because without it, the country will not be returned to democracy."

A referendum rejection of the charter would open the way for the junta to choose at random one of the country's past and potentially even less democratic constitutions and arrange for general elections tentatively scheduled for mid-December with no public debate.

"Even though I think the new constitution is rather flexible and relatively well designed," said Chulalongkorn University economist Somphob Manarangsan, "to be accepted under the current circumstances is not going to be very easy."

(Inter Press Service)

Thailand's junta shows its (heavy) hand (Sep 26, '06)

Thailand: All the king's men (Sep 21, '06)

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