BANGKOK — The newly-elected president of Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly, Pornpetch Wichitcholchai, is a former Supreme Court judge and strong military ally who once promoted tougher laws against criticism of the monarchy.
As the only candidate nominated for post, Mr. Pornpetc, 66, was unanimously voted into office by the members of the NLA during its first official session today. The former judge has been serving as an adviser to the military junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order, since it staged a coup against the elected government on 22 May.
Mr. Pornpetch was also selected by the 2006 coupmakers to be a member of the legislative assembly that was formed following the 2006 military takeover. That legislative body governed Thailand until a general election was held in late 2007.
During his time as a legislator, Mr. Pornpetch caused an uproar among human rights activists by proposing an amendment to Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Codes, which criminalises defamation of His Majesty the King, Her Majesty the Queen, the Heir Apparent, and the Regent.
The law, known as lese majeste, was already infamous for its draconian scope and punishment: those found guilty of insulting the monarchy face up to 15 years in prison. Furthermore, what constitutes an "insult" is so vaguely defined that any discussion about the Royal Family is liable for prosecution.
But according to Mr. Pornpetch, the law was too light. In his proposal, lese majeste should expand to cover other members of the Royal Family, the Head of Privy Council, all of the Privy Councilors, and "any person who has been appointed a representative of His Majesty the King."
Mr. Pornpetch also suggested granting judges the power to outlaw media coverage of ongoing lese majeste trials.
"In the appropriate case, [court officials] can file a request to the court to forbid any publication of any facts, behaviour, discussion, or opinion related to the case, regardless of the type of the media," said the draft penned by Mr. Pornpetch.
Any journalist that violated the proposed legislation would be punished by up to three years in prison.
However, Mr. Pornpetch decided to withdraw the draft on 9 October 2007 – a day before the legislative body was scheduled to debate the proposed law. According to an interview with the Post Today, Mr. Pornpetch pulled the draft because he was told to do so by the Privy Council, a close advisory body to His Majesty the King.
"They were not pleased," Mr. Pornpetch reportedly said.
Choosing PM 'not a priority'
Now that the NLA has officially opened and selected its chairman, there is intense speculation over who the the assembly will choose to be Thailand's next Prime Minister.
Many believe the premiership will go to the NCPO’s chairman, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha. Gen. Prayuth's brother and member of the NLA, Lt.Gen. Preecha Chan-ocha, said that he thinks the junta leader is capable of being Prime Minister.
Mr. Pornpetch told reporters today that the assembly will convene a meeting to name the Prime Minister only after His Majesty the King royally endorses his appointment as the president of the NLA. He also said that choosing a Prime Minister is not a top priority for the assembly.
"I cannot say it's strictly the first job the NLA has to do," Mr. Pornpetch said. "Because during this time, if there are other urgent matters, we can consider them first."
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