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Thai Court Opens Hearings on Amending Post-Coup Constitution

Thai Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung
Chalerm Yoobamrung, Thailand's deputy prime minister. Photographer: Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/GettyImages

Thailand’s Constitutional Court opens hearings today to determine if allies of fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra can rewrite a charter ratified after the army ousted him in 2006, raising the possibility of street protests.

The court last month ordered Parliament to halt consideration of an amendment that would establish a body to rewrite the constitution until it decides whether the process complies with the current charter. The ruling may undermine plans by the party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, to change the document to increase the power of elected politicians over appointed judges and bureaucrats.

Thaksin’s supporters say the court is exceeding its authority while his opponents see the amendments as part of a strategy aimed at allowing him to return four years after fleeing a jail sentence for abuse of power. A resurgence of political protests could present an opportunity to buy stocks, said Andrew Stotz, an investment strategist at Maybank Kim Eng Securities (Thailand) Pcl, the nation’s largest brokerage.

“Regardless of politics, this economy and the companies in it continue to crank on,” Stotz said. “Political instability is nothing new.”

Thailand’s consumer confidence rose in June as easing oil prices and improving economic indicators support the nation’s outlook. An index measuring sentiment rose to 68.5 from 67.1 in May the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said yesterday. The gauge is based on a survey of 2,232 respondents.

Stock Rally

The SET Index has gained 17 percent this year, more than benchmarks in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Overseas investors bought a net $2.1 billion of Thai stocks this year, the most among Southeast Asian countries tracked by Bloomberg.

The judges will decide whether the process violates Article 68 of the constitution, which restricts attempts “to overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State.” The clause allows the court to disband political parties that contravene the stipulation.

About 200 people showing support for both the monarchy and the judges gathered outside the courtroom today, while a similar number of police officers stood by. The court asked seven witnesses to testify today and eight more tomorrow, including house speaker Somsak Kiatsuranont, a member of Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party. It’s unclear how long it will take to reach a verdict.

Judge Withdraws

One of the court’s nine judges withdrew from the case today after a Pheu Thai lawyer brought up his role in drafting the current constitution, court president Wasan Soypisudh said. A minimum of five judges is needed for a decision, he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung said this week he expects the court to dismiss the case. Yingluck would remain as prime minister even if the party was dissolved because she’s not on the executive committee, and other members would form a new organization that could be called “Thaksin,” he said.

“I believe the court will dismiss the case and the nation can move forward,” Chalerm said on July 2. “There is nothing to worry about. The court may give in and have mercy.”

The opposition Democrat party argues that forming the 99-member drafting assembly violates the constitution, and amendments must be done section-by-section within Parliament, according to Korn Chatikavanij, a deputy leader and former finance minister.

“It’s nothing to do with the monarchy or the monarchy as an issue,” he said in an interview last month. “It’s the concept of providing a blank check to write a whole new constitution without giving parliament any recourse.”

‘Drastic Change’

The Attorney General declined to forward the petitions to the Constitutional Court, saying last month that the amendment process complies with Article 68. The court violated the constitution in accepting the case without a recommendation from prosecutors, according to Chaturon Chaisang, a former Cabinet member in a Thaksin government. Changing the 309-article constitution section-by-section may take a decade, he told reporters last month.

“If you want this constitution to be democratic you have to do a drastic change,” Chaturon said. “In practice, if the court rules that this amendment is unconstitutional, it would mean they have already closed the door to the amendment of the constitution forever.”

Yingluck campaigned on changing the constitution before her party’s majority win in elections a year ago and included plans for a drafting assembly in a policy statement. A reconciliation committee established under the previous administration warned the Constitutional Court in a letter last month to undertake a “strict interpretation” of the law, saying rulings seen as political may undermine the judiciary.

Constitutional Crisis

The courts have played a leading role in determining Thai political outcomes since 2006, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej called on judges to resolve a pending constitutional crisis. Since then, judges voided an election won by Thaksin’s party, disqualified about 200 politicians linked to him, sentenced him to jail and seized 46 billion baht of his wealth.

King Bhumibol, 84, took the throne in 1946 and serves as head of state. Insulting him can lead to a 15-year jail sentence.

Only two of 17 constitutions since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 have mandated parliaments that are entirely elected. The current one, drafted by a military-appointed assembly and passed in a referendum without a parliamentary vote, includes a half-appointed Senate.

More Protests

The court will probably rule that parliament must vote on the final amended document instead of having it go straight to a referendum, similar to the process for the 1997 constitution, according to Jade Donavanik, dean of the graduate school of law at Bangkok’s Siam University. The ruling may lead to demonstrations from either the Thaksin-aligned Red Shirts or opponents known as the Yellow Shirts, he said.

If Thaksin’s allies “start all over again, then the Yellow Shirts will not come out,” said Jade, who sat on a panel created by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to recommend constitutional changes after street protests in 2010 that killed more than 90 people. “But if they don’t back off, then the Yellow shirts will come out and that’s going to be a crisis. I can see street battles.”

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