Thailand unveils latest charter perpetuating army's power

BANGKOK, Thailand – A panel appointed by Thailand's military junta on Tuesday, March 29, unveiled a draft constitution touted as the solution to a decade-long political crisis, but derided by critics as undemocratic and divisive.

Thailand has been controlled by the army since a 2014 coup overthrew the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, whose billionaire family has swept the last 3 elections but is hated by the Bangkok elite. 

If the charter is ratified, it will perpetuate the military's influence. 

A junta-appointed senate would check the powers of lawmakers for a 5-year transitional period following fresh elections.

The document also enshrines a proportional voting system, a move that would likely reduce the majority held by any elected government once Thais regain the right to vote.

The drafters insist their new constitution – the kingdom's 20th in less than a century – will end the cycle of elections, street protests, and coups.

"We see it as a return to a period where you don't have people confronting each other on the streets," Constitutional Drafting Committee spokesman Norachit Sinhaseni told reporters.

"That is what the majority of Thais want."

But critics say it is aimed squarely at breaking the Shinawatras' electoral stranglehold on the country.

The document is set to go to the public in a referendum on August 7. 

However the junta has warned it will not tolerate criticism of the charter in the run-up to the vote, making debate all but impossible.

"I have laws in hand. Whoever violates those laws, legal action will be taken against them," junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha told reporters after the draft was unveiled. 

Two opposition politicians have already been detained by the military this week for voicing criticism of the document and the junta. 

'Expands military power'

Paul Chambers, a Thailand-based academic, said the document would in effect prolong army rule and establish a "frail democracy" easily controlled by a junta-stacked senate.

"It is a charter which expands military and judicial power at the expense of democracy," he told AFP.

In the run-up to its unveiling the charter has been criticized by both sides of the political divide, even those who cheered the toppling of the government led by Yingluck's Pheu Thai party.

Jatuporn Prompan, a prominent leader of the Red Shirt movement loyal to the Shinawatras, hit out Tuesday.

"If they (the military) want to return democracy to Thais, (they should) return whole – not partial – democracy," he told AFP.

Pheu Thai's bitter rival the Democrat Party has yet to say what it will advise voters but its leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, has publicly criticized the charter. 

Thailand is no stranger to constitutional rewrites but these have done little to calm its turbulent politics. The general public often shrugs off the passage of a document seen as heavily biased and liable to change with the political winds.

The latest chapter in the country's long struggle with democracy began in 2006 when Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, was ousted by a coup.

That power grab sparked years of rival street protests and political chicanery by the Bangkok establishment.

Thaksin, who lives in self-exile to avoid a graft conviction he says is politically motivated, has pilloried the junta for bungling the economy and ruining the political landscape.

The army claims legitimacy from the revered but ailing king. 

Analysts attribute the current political crisis to the monarch's ill-health and a bitter tussle for influence among competing elites once his reign ends. – Jerome Taylor, AFP