Junta Approves Charter Referendum, Leaving Details for Later

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha chairs a meeting between the junta and Cabinet at the Government House in Bangkok, 19 May 2015.

BANGKOK — Thailand's military junta has agreed to hold a referendum on the draft of its new post-coup charter, without specifying what options the ballot will offer.

The decision, which was reached in a joint meeting between the junta and the Cabinet today, came after pro-democracy activists, politicians from Thailand's major parties, and even officials in the military government had voiced support for the measure.

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Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha at the Government House in Bangkok, 19 May 2015.

Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who chairs both the junta and the Cabinet, said his government will ask the interim parliament he appointed to amend the current constitution to allow for a referendum, which is not mentioned in the charter's present form. 

"Once the constitutional amendment is done, we will immediately proceed with the referendum," Gen. Prayuth told reporters today. "Our duty is to make the law that allows for the procedure. As for the procedures themselves, they will be left to relevant agencies. The referendum will be the duty of the Election Commission." 

Gen. Prayuth said he could not comment on what choices the referendum will offer voters who reject the charter.

In the referendum for the post-coup 2007 charter, which was also drafted by a junta-appointed council, voters were only permitted to accept or decline the document. Critics say that many voters reluctantly approved the junta’s charter out of fear that the undisclosed alternative would be worse.

The current junta, known officially as the National Council for Peace and Order, dissolved the 2007 constitution after seizing power from an elected government last May. Gen. Prayuth then appointed a committee to draft a new "permanent" constitution, which will be Thailand’s 20th since democracy was established in 1932.

Surachai Liengboonlertchai, deputy chairperson of the National Legislative Assembly, said amending the junta’s interim charter will take approximately 15 days. He added that the amendment may include more details about the referendum. 

"In the amendment, I think there should be conditions of the referendum, for example, what will happen in the event that the people do not approve the constitution draft," Surachai said. 

Asked whether the junta will relax its ban on political activities to allow the public to voice opinions on the constitution draft, Surachai replied, "I think that should be the case, because the Organic Act on Referendum clearly states that there has to be forums where people can express their opinions freely, in order to promote understanding of the constitution draft." 

The referendum is expected to postpone the timeline for elections, which are currently scheduled for early 2016, by three months.

Critics say the current draft of the junta's charter establishes an uneven balance of power that cripples elected politicians and favors appointed "independent" agencies, whose members are historically allied with the traditional elite. The charter’s most controversial features include the establishment of a mostly-appointed Senate and the option for an unelected Prime Minister.

Some pro-democracy activists and politicians have proposed the junta organize a referendum that would allow voters to choose between the junta’s charter and the 1997 constitution, which was written by an elected assembly and is known as the "People’s Constitution" for its egalitarian nature.

Other activists in Thailand have campaigned for a referendum that would give Thais the chance to elect a fresh assembly of drafters to pen a new charter altogether.

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