Thai Junta Retains Sweeping Power Under Interim ConstitutionAnuchit Nguyen and Suttinee Yuvejwattana
Thailand’s junta announced an interim constitution that gives the military oversight of a hand-picked legislative assembly as well as amnesty for staging their May 22 coup.
The military will choose a 220-member legislature, which will pick a prime minister and 35-strong cabinet, according to a statement in the Royal Gazette. General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, leader of the National Council for Peace and Order, received the endorsed charter from King Bhumibol Adulyadej yesterday.
The constitution reflects the demands of a protest group led by former opposition lawmaker Suthep Thaugsuban that staged a six-month street campaign to oust the administration of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Suthep said he wanted to “reclaim sovereign power” and appoint a reform council to wipe out the influence of Yingluck and her brother Thaksin, whose parties have won the last five elections.
The constitution “will help solve the crisis and return the situation to normal, restore security, unity and solve economic problems,” according to the statement. The reform council will draft “political rules to prevent and suppress corruption and investigate abuses of power by the state before handing the mission to new representatives and the government.”
The 48-article constitution, which replaces the one annulled by Prayuth after the coup, is Thailand’s 18th since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The charter also calls for the formation of a 250-member reform committee that will need to approve a permanent constitution to be written by a 36-strong drafting committee before elections can be held.
“The NCPO will be in power until a new constitution is implemented,” junta adviser Wissanu Krea-ngam said today at a media briefing in Bangkok, adding that Prayuth is eligible to be named prime minister.
Article 44 of the charter gives Prayuth the power to take action against any threats to peace and order, national security or the monarchy, and the charter’s final article protects the coup-makers from prosecution.
“The point of the constitution is to add palace legitimacy to the coup through the king-endorsed enshrinement of new laws,” said Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai. “Almost every Thai constitution has included an amnesty for the military. In fact, amnesty for militaries has been a major rationale for most Thai constitutions. This allows and encourages coup after coup after coup.”
People who have held positions with political parties in the past three years will be ineligible to join the legislature or the reform council, according to the charter, which gives the NCPO power to appoint members to both groups.
The reform committee will include a representative from each of Thailand’s 77 provinces, with the remaining members chosen by a selection committee and the NCPO from among 11 professional groups, junta adviser Wissanu Krea-ngam said today at a media briefing.
Pornphet Wichitchonchai, another NCPO adviser, said at the same briefing that the charter is longer than previous post-coup constitutions because “we have written a lot on the king’s power.”
“This interim constitution clearly states the king’s power over many issues that we want him to have, such as granting amnesty and appointing people,” Pornphet said. “No matter what constitution we are under, either temporary or permanent, the king is our supreme power. Even though the king is the constitutional monarch under the law, the king is more than that.”
King Bhumibol, 86, took the throne in 1946 and serves as head of state. Thailand’s constitution says the king “shall be enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated.” His picture is hung in most Thai homes and a royal anthem praising him is played before movies in theaters across the country.
King Bhumibol granted an audience yesterday to Prayuth at the Klai Kangwon Palace in Hua Hin, 200 kilometers (124 miles) south of Bangkok, and presented the army chief with the endorsed interim charter, according to a palace statement. He moved to the palace in Prachuap Khiri Khan province in August last year, after leaving the Bangkok hospital that he had lived in since September 2009.
Thailand’s military has carried out a dozen coups since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932, with three governments overthrown since 2006 by the army or judicial action. The latest putsch came eight years after army ousted Thaksin, dissolved his party and banned about 200 political allies from holding office for five years. Thaksin later fled abroad to escape a 2008 jail sentence from charges brought by a military-appointed panel.
Prayuth has said he had no choice other than to seize power after meetings called by the army among key figures from both sides of the political divide failed to find a solution to six months of sometimes violent unrest.
Since taking power on May 22, the NCPO has silenced critics by outlawing protests and threatening the media with sanctions for content critical of the coup. Hundreds of activists, academics, opposition politicians and journalists were summoned and detained by the military in the weeks following the putsch.
Prayuth has restarted payments to rice farmers and vowed to accelerate state spending after gross domestic product fell 0.6 percent year-on-year in the first quarter as political turmoil restricted the ability of the previous government to borrow. The junta capped fuel prices and approved handouts to the tourism industry, efforts that it said would “return happiness to the Thai people.”
Prayuth said June 27 that a permanent constitution will be drafted by July 2015 and an election could be held three months after its promulgation. The legislative council is expected to be formed in August, junta adviser Wissanu said.