On July 22, Thailand’s king endorsed an interim constitution that grants power to the military to intervene in matters it deems “destructive to the peace and safety of the country” without approval of a civilian government. The document, pitched as “the first step toward restoring electoral democracy,” also preserves the military-led government called National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), in the run-up to a planned October 2015 election.
The draft, however, gave no timeframe for an election. The southeast Asian country has been ruled by a junta since the military staged a coup on May 22 following months of anti-government protests.
In a DW interview, Paul Chambers, Director of Research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, Thailand, says that as junta leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha (main picture) is expected to retire as army commander in October, he will probably remain at the helm of the NCPO and also appoint himself the country’s prime minister.
DW: The new temporary constitution is being pitched as the first step towards restoring Thai democracy. What is your view on this?
Paul Chambers: The military and the arch-royalists are pitching the new temporary constitution as a first step toward restoring Thai democracy. This is due to the fact that their perception of democracy centers on not allowing any single elected person or party to dominate politics, something which they view as a threat to the king and vested Thai interests.
Chambers: “Prayuth has worked to design the new interim charter to facilitate his rise to the position of prime minister”
As such, the goal of the temporary charter is to set up an assembly to produce a permanent constitution which will diminish the power of elected Thai civilian governments. It is also meant to dilute the electoral system in such a way that no single party can achieve a majority.
Moreover, it is designed to weaken the power of the executive branch and weaken Thai political parties. Simultaneously, the judiciary and security forces would become more insulated from control by civilian governments and their powers would be enhanced.
What are the key aspects of the document?
Firstly, the temporary constitution has been produced to legitimize the May coup and the current ruling military junta. Secondly, the document legitimizes the process of writing a new permanent constitution. The first key aspect involves the creation of a 220-member national legislative assembly and appointed 36-person cabinet – including the post of prime minister. Importantly, the members of each entity are nominated by the NCPO, and then endorsed by the Thai king.
The National Legislative Assembly (NLA, an unelected body similar to parliament appointed by the military) is set to act as legislature to the cabinet. Meanwhile a National Reform Council is to be created and appointed to draft the new permanent constitution. Its members will be appointed by the NCPO and endorsed by the king.
The NCPO will thus be able to veto anything that the NLA, Cabinet or NRC decide, as long as the king endorses such a veto. In other words, the real power remains with the military junta. Such a situation differs from the coup group of 2006-2008, in which the prime minister was actually more powerful than the military junta leader.
Back then, there was much bickering between the junta and the cabinet, and one result was that less policies were effectively implemented, and less laws were enshrined to help ensure that pro-Thaksin political parties could return to power.
Thus, in 2008, a pro-Thaksin party did win the election. This time, the arch-royalists and military want to go the extra mile constitutionally to “fix” the botched anti-Thaksin efforts of the 2006-2008 coup group. As such, General Prayuth, through the NCPO, will be able to have singular power over all institutions, save for the king, who will likely endorse the changes allowed for by the NCPO.
Who drafted the constitution and why was it viewed as necessary by the NCPO?
Actually, it was a group of technocrats who created this interim constitution. Meechai Ruchupan and Wissanu Kruengam are the actual men who put together this document. Meechai has led the writing of Thai constitutions since 1991. He is close to the king. Wissanu was once close to Thaksin. He has moved over to support the arch-royalists.
The constitution was viewed as necessary by the NCPO to firstly legitimize their power seizure and administrative control over Thailand; secondly start the process of “reform,” thirdly grant them complete power over all other administrative, legislative and judicial entities and, last but not least, grant a blanket amnesty to the military for its seizure of power.
The amnesty is perhaps the principal reason for the interim constitution – at least for the military. It constitutionally clears them from any future court action against them. In fact, an amnesty for the Thai military has been a part of 16 of the past 19 constitutions. The need for amnesty can thus explain in part why first, Thailand has had so many constitutions; and second, why Thai soldiers are unafraid about carrying out new coups. It also does not hurt that most of these takeovers have been supported by Thailand’s monarch.
On a higher level, the need for a new interim constitution is needed to prepare for a permanent constitution which is designed to keep the Shinawatra family out of politics, or any future elected civilian politician who might attempt to dominate the political scene and perhaps threaten the political and economic monopoly of the monarchy.
What power does it give the military junta and General Prayuth?
The new temporary constitution has been produced to legitimize the May coup and the current ruling military junta, says Chambers
Article 44 of the constitution grants General Prayuth, as NCPO leader, total power over the rest of Thailand’s political system, though under the king.
I believe that Prayuth has worked to design the new interim charter to facilitate his rise to the position of Prime Minister. AsPrayuth is supposed to retire as Army Commander on October 1, 2014, he will probably remain NCPO head and also appoint himself prime minister, though this is not definite.
He will most likely appoint his loyalist, Deputy Army Commander General Udomdet Sitabutr as army commander. But Prayuth will remain in charge of the military and politics. The interim constitution allows this through Article 44.
Dr. Paul Chambers is Director of Research at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Thailand’s military rulers have intensified restrictions on the free speech by threatening to close outlets with critical media coverage, a move that amounts to ‘gag order’ to all of society, HRW’s John Sifton tells DW. (21.07.2014)