POLITICS-THAILAND: New Constitution Regressive Say Critics

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Ron Corben

BANGKOK, Apr 23 (IPS) – Thailand’s new constitution, released for public
debate last week, faces a difficult a plebiscite in September, featuring
as it does proposals to limit the influence of political parties and the
executive and install an appointed ‘upper house’ senate.

The draft, released by the military appointed 35-member Constitution
Drafting Committee, comes seven months after elected prime minister
Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a coup, accused of abusing powers
under the 1997 constitution.

Since the coup there has been a tendency to limit the public’s role in the
political process that has alarmed pro-democracy activists through the
drafting of the new constitution — Thailand’s 18th since it became a
constitutional monarchy in 1932.

If passed, the new constitution 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 in two four-year terms.

On the other hand it will become easier for individual politicians to
switch political parties in the lead up to an election, undermining the
influence of the parties. It is targeted at preventing a return of a
concentration of power that occurred under Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party
that built up a massive majority in parliament.

“The first draft of the new charter is designed to prevent the
monopolisation of Thai politics that was seen under overthrown prime
minister, Thaksin Shinawatra’s five-year rule,” political commentator
Thitinan Pongsudhirak noted in the ‘Bangkok Post’ on Friday.

“It is practically a revenge on the so-called Thaksin regime and a
rejection of the hard-won principles enshrined in the previous 1997
‘people’s charter’,” Thitinan said.

The 1997 charter was itself a reaction to the past. After the bloody
crackdown by the then military in 1992 to pro-democracy protests after the
appointment of a non-elected prime minister, Gen. Suchinda Krayprayoon,
the steps to ensuring support for the 1997 constitution had been sound.

Overseeing the constitution’s birth was an elected — not appointed —
drafting assembly. A wide debate preceded its presentation to parliament
in 1997.

“As heated debates ensue over the merits of the draft, the Thai people are
likely to miss the 1997 charter. It remains the best constitution Thailand
has ever had. Its fatal flaw was that it allowed Thaksin’s rise and
abusive five-year rule,” Thitinan added.

Already the new document has been greeted with scepticism and criticism
and viewed as a backward step in Thailand’s efforts to promote democracy.
Kraisak Choonhavan, a former senator, says 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 senate — meaning appointed. Can you believe that in a
democracy? Such things are clearly a regression,” Kraisak said in an
interview.

Others are simply looking at the new charter to overcome those weaknesses
in the 1997 constitution that enabled Thaksin to concentrate power, and
remedy them. Narudh Chevamahara, a 22-year-old economics student from
Chulalongkorn University, wants the charter to avoid the previous
administration’s shortfalls.

“The last constitution àall the loopholes, the government used to corrupt
or basically cheat the people. (So) each loophole (should) be closed down
and simply ‘retune’ it,” Narudh told IPS.

But the outlook remains difficult for the new charter. A range of groups
from pro-Thaksin supporters to anti-military and coup groups, academics
and some civil society organisations have all voiced their opposition to
the charter. It is a concern that Narudh has over the outlook for the
charter.

“What worries me is the people might have the anti-government sentiment
and they might end up saying ‘OK — since the government is doing a bad
job and they might say OK this constitution would be 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,” he said.

Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD) secretary general Suriyasai Katasila
told ‘The Nation’ newspaper that the constitution would weaken “people’s
power” and also that of politicians. But while the CPD opposed proposals
such as reducing the number of elected representatives, the new charter
provides for more people’s participation.

Under the new charter the numbers of signatures required to launch issue
of possible impeachment of politicians or the proposal for new laws have
been reduced to 20,000 from 50,000 under the 1997 constitution.

The new charter also raises the profile of the judiciary. Senior judges
will have unprecedented authority to select and approve commissioners of
the so-called independent institutions. A special 11-person committee,
including the prime minister, parliamentary president, the senate
president, 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 centred in the courts could eventually
result in a possible corruption of the courts — and abuse by the various
courts themselves,” said ‘The Nation’ commentator Pravit Rojanaphruk.

Others, such as Supavud Saicheua, economist for ‘Phatra Securities’, says
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. 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,” Supavud said.

A rejection of the charter would leave the way open for the junta to
choose at random one of the past constitutions and then proceed towards
elections with little public debate.

With the charter’s draft now in the public domain a round of campaigns and
promotions through the media, especially the print media, will take place
in the weeks leading up to the vote in September. If passed, Thai
electorate would go to the polls in December.

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

(END/2007)

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