By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer
BANGKOK — One of the most contentious aspects of the junta-sponsored draft charter released Tuesday is the question of how much longer it would enable the military to stay in power if voters choose to adopt it as the law of the land.
The 279 articles filling the 105 pages of the charter released Tuesday offers reasons to suggest the junta will be around, one way or another, for at least five years, and there are other blurry issues to take into consideration as well. Many of its most contentious details are stipulated in the transitional provisions enumerated between articles 262 and 279.
Under Article 269, for the first five years after an election, 244 members of the 250-person senate will be chosen by the National Council for Peace and Order, the formal name of the junta, via a junta-appointed selection committee. Six other seats will be reserved, ex-officio, for commanders of the army, navy, air force, police, the armed forces commander in chief and permanent secretary of the Defense Ministry.
Since there will be 500 MPs under the new draft charter, this means a third of the Parliament House will be populated by people chosen by the junta.
Under the charter draft, candidates for prime minister will come from parties’ lists of three candidates, but if none of the MP candidates wins a majority of lower house votes, both upper and lower houses will convene a joint session to select a prime minister. Candidates can be nominated who are not MPs, thus allowing room for a non-MP to become prime minister.
Those who think the junta will quickly fade away and cease to exist if and after the draft charter is approved through the Aug. 7 referendum may be disappointed.
This five-year transitional upper house, which is indirectly selected by the NCPO, is authorized under Article 270 to endorse laws and oversee the implementation of reforms. The Cabinet will have to report to the senate every three months to update them about the progress of reforms, and the senate is empowered to speed up that process.
The first-term, post-election senate is basically an extended arm of the NCPO for five years after a new elected government is sworn in.
The draft charter also ensures that the junta itself won’t be leaving too soon. Article 265 stated that the NCPO will remain in power until “the newly formed Cabinet” assumes office.
What if 24 hours before the new cabinet assumes office, junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha decides he can’t bear the sight of the newly formed government and exercises his absolute power under Article 44, which is guaranteed to remain intact, to do something about it?
Here’s where things get even more blurry and tricky. Article 279 states that all the orders and actions made by the NCPO and its head before this draft charter comes into effect will be considered constitutional under the new draft charter and “will have [legally] binding effects”.
Does this mean orders freezing assets of some dissidents and the requirement that these people seek the NCPO’s permission to travel abroad will still be valid?
In the overall picture, the preamble of the draft charter says a lot about how the junta-sponsored charter drafters view politicians and the notion of democracy.
Part of the two-and-a-half-page preamble states that past constitutional crisis was partly a result of “people who are not fearful of rules governing the country.”
The first page also vaguely states that another factor in causing the crisis was due to “governing rules that are still not suited” to Thailand at the current time.
The preamble gives us a clue as to how the junta-appointed charter drafters perceive an ideal society. It states that preconditions leading to political conflicts must be reduced so Thai society can be “happy and peaceful on the foundations of love and unity.” It says nothing about how different political opinions should be accommodated and resolved peacefully through deliberation.
Those who love the military junta’s performance over the nearly past two years will likely be happy to endorse the draft charter as they can feel reassured that the NCPO will not really vanish after 2017.
People who are already fed up with the military regime will have a hard time deciding what to do, as the NCPO is keeping its cards close to its chest and not revealing what may happen in case the junta-sponsored draft charter gets rejected in the Aug. 7 referendum.
There’s a possibility that the junta may restart a third round of the charter drafting process, thus in effect buying more time and staying in power even longer, or junta leader Gen. Prayuth may invoke his absolute power to amend the rejected draft or revise any former constitution and declare it valid. And there lies the uncertainty of not just the draft charter but the whole referendum process.