Academics Suggest Reviving Absolute Monarchy's Supreme Council

Panitan Wattanayagorn speaking at a panel co-hosted by the conservative think-tank King Prajadhipok Institute and the National Reform Council (NRC) on 8 Nov 2014 [Photo: Voice TV]

BANGKOK — Several prominent academics have proposed reviving the Supreme Council of the State, a decision-making body that superseded all three branches of government during Thailand’s last days as an absolute monarchy.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn suggested at a panel discussion on Saturday that including a Supreme Council in the new Constitution could help secure a “balance of power” between different branches of government. 

"We’ve proposed the formation of the Supreme Council of the State to serve as another balance of power, apart from the administrative, legislative, and judicial branches," said Panitarn, who served as an adviser to the administration of Abhisit Vejjajiva during the crackdown on Redshirt protesters in 2010.

"It will be the fourth balance of power," he said. "Under this system, the Supreme Council will wield the biggest power as a sovereign governing body.” 

The panel was co-hosted by the conservative think-tank King Prajadhipok Institute and the National Reform Council (NRC), which was appointed by the junta to propose a reforms across a wide range of sectors in Thailand over the next year. 

However, the sec-gen of the Prajadhipok Institute and chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), Bowornsak Uwanno, quickly clarified that no groups involved with the junta's reform process have formally endorsed the idea of a Supreme Council.

"Some media may say in their headlines that the Prajadhipok Institute proposed the establishment of a Supreme Council to control the Cabinet, the Parliament, and the court," said Bowornsak. "That is not true. It's only a suggestion by Surapol.”

He was referring to Surapol Sriwitthaya, a lecturer at Rangsit University who is credited for spearheading the proposal at the Prajadhipok Institute.

'Legacy' of Absolute Monarchy

In an interview with Matichon on Saturday, Surapol cited "Chinese" political philosophy as the inspiration for his proposal. 

"If you look at the Chinese Constitution that [Chinese republican revolutionary] Sun Yat-Sen helped lay foundation to, you will see that it does not separate the sovereign powers into three branches in the way Montesquieu describes," Surapol said.

According to Surapol, Thailand should emulate the Chinese tradition of establishing a strong central authority with technocrats wielding significant power in the administration of the country. He also noted that the Supreme Council was once put into practice in Thailand by King Prajadhipok in late 1920s. 

"A supreme governing council is an old legacy of King Rama VII. We should apply the idea as the central authority of all independent agencies," Surapol said.

King Prajadhipok, more commonly known as King Rama VII, formed the Supreme Council in 1925 in an effort to solve various crises besetting the royal government at the time, including a global recession and growing calls for democratic governance.

The council was stacked with top palace princes and accused by critics of failing to impose any real reforms. A group of military officers and civilians later seized power on 24 June 1932 and paved the way for parliamentary democracy in Thailand, abolishing the Supreme Council in the process.

Despite its historical shortcomings, Surapol said the council could be an effective answer to recent attempts to install a truly "independent agency" in Thailand that counters the influence of elected politicians. 

"The 1997 and 2007 Constitutions had already established some independent agencies to serve as checks and balances," Surapol told Matichon. "But if we do not have a political institute that only answers to such independent agencies, we won't have a strong system of checks and balances."

Supreme authority

According to Surapol, the Supreme Council would consist of 23 members selected from the legislative, administrative, and judicial branches, such as Prime Minister, an opposition leader, speakers from the lower and upper houses, judges, and 22 "local representatives" from across the country.

The Supreme Council would be responsible for overseeing the recruitment and transfer of bureaucrats "to prevent interference from political factions," Surapol said. 

He added that the council would also assume a "semi-judicial" role, especially in cases of impeaching political office holders.

According to Surapol's vision, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and Parliament would be able to petition the Supreme Council to impeach politicians, and the Council, not the courts, would retain the final say.

Although political activists across the spectrum in Thailand agree that checks and balances are a healthy facet of a democracy, supporters of the Redshirt movement have accused the country’s "independent agencies," like the NACC and Constitutional Court, of harbouring a bias against the elected governments they support.

Their suspicion has been reinforced by the NACC and judiciary's prolific record of ruling against politicians allied to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the de facto leader of the Redshirts. 

However, Alongkorn Ponlaboot, former Democrat MP and a member of the National Reform Council, stressed yesterday that the idea of the Supreme Council is merely one of many ideas submitted to the body. 

"The NRC has not formally considered the proposal by Prajadhipok Institute," Alongkorn told reporters. "But it's a good sign that every side is proposing their opinion about reforms of our nation."

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