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Thai Leader Submits Constitution Plan That Threatens Turmoil

Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra
Yingluck Shinawatra, prime minister of Thailand. Photographer: Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s party submitted its plan to overhaul the constitution written after a 2006 coup that ousted her brother, an effort that has sparked political turmoil in the past.

The Pheu Thai party presented a proposal to parliament to create a Constitution Drafting Assembly, House Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranont told reporters in Bangkok today. The measure will be put on the agenda for lawmakers to discuss within 15 days, Somsak said.

The committee would comprise 99 people and have 180 days to draw up a new constitution, Pheu Thai Spokesman Prompong Nopparit said by phone yesterday. Moving to rewrite the constitution is Yingluck’s biggest challenge to a military establishment that six years ago overthrew former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra since she took power in August.

“The Pheu Thai party sees that the 2007 constitution is not democratic,” Prompong said. “It weakens political parties, weakens politicians and limits the freedom of people. The constitution should be drafted by people for people.”

A nationwide referendum will be held after the rewrite is completed, Prompong said. Moves by Thaksin’s allies in 2008 to change the constitution sparked violent street protests by his yellow-shirted opponents that shut down parts of Bangkok and culminated in the seizure of the city’s airports.

“The government thinks it is confident enough to make a move that will certainly upset the military and anti-Thaksin forces,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “I’d be very surprised if the Yellow Shirts can bring out the numbers they were able to bring out several years ago.”

Post-Coup Constitution

Thailand’s SET Index fell 0.1 percent as of the mid-day break, after rising 1.4 percent yesterday to a six-month high. The baht weakened 0.1 percent against the dollar.

The proposal calls for the amendment of Article 291, which specifies how the constitution can be changed. Right now amendments require the approval of a joint sitting of the 480-member House of Representatives and 150-member Senate.

The assembly would comprise 99 people, including a representative elected from each of Thailand’s 77 provinces and 22 legal experts selected by the Parliament, Prompong said. Members of political parties would be barred from sitting on the assembly, he said.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy, known as the Yellow Shirts, will protest on the streets again if the constitution seeks to give Thaksin an amnesty or reduces the power of the monarchy, spokesman Parnthep Pourpongpan said yesterday. The group has worn yellow in the past to show allegiance to the king.

‘Grab More Power’

“They know that this process will create a constitution for the Pheu Thai party to amnesty Thaksin and grab more power,” Parnthep said by phone. “They are trying to avoid the investigation process by the court.”

Thaksin, who founded what became Thailand’s biggest mobile-phone company, draws his support from poorer Thais in the north and northeast who make up a majority of the population. In July, Pheu Thai won 265 seats in the 500-seat parliament, the fifth straight time a party linked to Thaksin has won the most seats in an election since 2001.

Pheu Thai won the most seats in 37 provinces during the last election, compared with 25 for the main opposition Democrat party. The remaining 15 provinces either were split or won by smaller parties, election results show.

The army has no opinion on the proposed amendments, spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said by phone. The military ousted Thaksin in 2006 on grounds he failed to respect King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 84.

Political Bans

Under a clause in the post-coup constitution, a party can be disbanded and its executive board banned from office for five years if one member is found guilty of a crime. Since the coup, courts have disbanded two parties composed of Thaksin’s allies that won elections in 2005 and 2007.

In 2008, Thaksin’s allies proposed changing the clause that made it easy to dissolve political parties, triggering the airport protests that led to a change in government. After violence in 2010 that claimed more than 90 lives, former prime minister and current opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva ignored a reconciliation committee’s suggestion to change the party dissolution clause while making two minor tweaks.

Thaksin has lived overseas since fleeing a two-year jail sentence in 2008 for abuse of power. After his allies won July elections, Thaksin said a new constitution was needed “to allow freedom and justice.”

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