BANGKOK: A junta-appointed reform council is due to vote on Sunday (Sep 6) on whether to endorse a new constitution which critics say risks further calcifying Thailand’s political divisions.
The Thai army seized power from an elected government in May last year, promising to reboot the country after years of rival street protests and political acrimony.
The junta says a new charter – Thailand’s 20th since it abandoned absolute monarchy in 1932 – holds the key to bridging those divides before democratic elections can be restored late next year.
For years the kingdom has been split between pro-democracy supporters of ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist parties and a conservative, royalist elite flanked by the military and judiciary. Shinawatra parties have won every election since 2001 and in response have been battered by two coups and the removal of three premiers by the Thai courts. Human rights have been in freefall since the coup, with dissent quickly stamped out and civilians facing trial in military courts.
The draft charter goes for a vote at the 247-strong National Reform Council on Sunday. If it passes, it is likely to be put to a public referendum early next year leading to new polls. But if rejected, the year-long process of scripting it will be begin again – delaying elections.
Opponents of the charter say it is a blatant attempt to embed the military’s political power for good and will prevent genuine democracy from taking root. They point to “section 260” that allows the military to replace any elected government with an appointed 22-member “crisis” panel at any time in the five years after the charter is enacted if unrest or political deadlock, as they see it, requires it. The panel would be stacked with military top brass and other unelected officials, effectively guaranteeing the military’s grip on power.
“Some junta-supporters might like it for it guarantees a few more years of suppression and fake peace,” said Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, a constitutional scholar at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “But it confirms the fear of many voters that the junta is not sincere about the democratisation process.”
Another provision that has triggered outrage is an article stating parliament can choose a non-MP to become prime minister with a two-thirds majority.
The crucial Sunday vote comes at a time of growing uncertainty among competing elites about the country’s future once the reign of ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 87, comes to an end.
The king, who endorsed May’s coup but has no official political role, is seen as a unifying figure in the bitterly divided nation.
In a statement earlier this week Yingluck’s toppled Puea Thai party urged a “no” vote, saying the proposed charter would destroy democracy and plunge the kingdom into even “deeper political polarization”.