Bipartisan Alarm Over Junta's 'Anti-Politician' Charter

CDC chairperson Bowornsak Uwanno briefs the National Reform Council about the constitution drafting, 10 March 2015

BANGKOK — In a rare public forum on the future of Thai politics, prominent politicians from the country’s rival parties banded together to criticize the junta’s new charter and its restraints on the power of elected officials.

Top members of the Pheu Thai and Democrat Parties—who a year ago would have been aptly described as sworn enemies—agreed last night that if enacted, the new charter will be a major setback for democracy in Thailand and sow the seeds for renewed conflict. 

The panel discussion, held at the Foreign Correspondent's Club in Thailand (FCCT), was the first public debate between politicians since the coup last May, after which the junta banned political activities of any kind in the name of achieving "national reconciliation." Although authorities instructed last night's panelists not to criticize the junta, the politicians did not mince words when discussing the draft of the new charter, which was written by a junta-appointed council to replace the constitution shredded after the coup.

Disapproval of the draft was expected from the Pheu Thai politicians, whose party controlled the government toppled in the military takeover, but for many, Democrat Party leader Kasit Piromya's criticism came as a surprise.

"I thought that this reformation process under the military’s direction would be moving Thailand in the direction of more democracy and not less," said Kasit, who invited the coup when he joined protests against the Pheu Thai government last year. "But what I’m seeing at the moment…is that we are going backwards. This is a regression of the democratic aspirations of Thai society."

The current charter draft has been criticized by pro-democracy activists for curtailing the power of elected politicians and bolstering bureaucratic oversight. The draft’s most controversial departures from recent constitutions include the transformation of the Senate into a fully-appointed body, and a clause that will allow an unelected "outsider" Prime Minister to take control in the event of a political crisis.

Officials say a finalized version of the constitution will take effect in September 2014, after which a national election will be held. 

Alongkorn Polabutr, the sole representative from the military government on the panel last night, echoed the charter's anti-politician bent when he opened his statement by pointing the finger at the three politicians to his right.

"I am not very comfortable here because all three of my colleagues are out of jobs," said Alongkorn, a former Democrat Party leader who joined the junta’s National Reform Council (NRC) last year. "The reason they are out of jobs is because they could not undertake a peaceful way of solving their own problems."

The 22 May coup was the culmination of six months of Democrat-backed street protests against a Pheu Thai government, whose legislators sparked public outrage by trying to pass an amnesty bill that would have allowed for the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaskin, the de facto leader of the Pheu Thai party, was ousted in a coup in 2006 and is reviled by Democrat Party supporters.

On 20 May 2014, then-army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha summoned representatives from both parties for "peace talks," and declared a coup two days later after they were unable to broker a compromise.

The three politicians on the panel last night, who in addition to Kasit included veteran Pheu Thai leaders Chaturon Chaiseng and Phongthep Thepkanjana, admitted that their parties had played a role in the crisis that led to the coup. However, they agreed that punishing politicians by excluding them from the reform process and weakening their roles in government would only further exacerbate the country’s political rifts.

Chaturon, one of few voices to regularly criticize the reform process despite the junta’s clampdown on dissent, expressed concern that MPs will be restrained by a proposed council that will stay on to ensure the government continues the junta’s reform plans. 

Under the proposal, the 120-member council will be composed of members from the junta’s five interim bodies. 

"There will be a steering committee to monitor and make sure that the reform plans are continuously implemented," Chaturon explained. "People will have no way to demand what they need, because everything will be already decided."

In his defense of the new charter, NRC member Alongkorn listed the ways in which past politicians had failed the country, citing rampant corruption and damaging "populist polices." He said the new unelected Senate, which he called the 'House of Citizens,' would serve to keep politicians in check.

"We are going to have a House of Citizens to balance with the House of Politicians, because they don’t believe you are honest enough,” he said. "The usual means of checks and balances were not functioning."

However, Phongthep, a former judge, Pheu Thai MP and Cabinet Minister, argued that strengthening appointed bodies at the expense of elected politicians would only grease the wheels for more graft.

"When this House of Citizens takes office, they will become politicians," said Phongthep. "They will have the power, and people who have power can become corrupt."

Phongthep stressed that in order to reduce corruption, officials must be held more accountable to the voters, not less. He urged the junta to put the new charter up for a referendum and give voters the option to return to the 1997 constitution, in which both houses of parliament were fully and directly elected. 

Government officials said yesterday that the junta has not yet discussed whether there will be a referendum for the charter, which will be Thailand's 20th since the country became a democracy 82 years ago.

Speaking at the forum last night, NRC member Alongkorn said he understood the other panelists' criticism, but stressed the need to "look forward."

"I understand that we may not be under  normal circumstances after the coup d'etat and with martial law," he said. "If I was still thinking the old way, maybe I would speak the same way as these three gentlemen. But now, if you move a little bit to see the new future of Thailand and look back on where we made mistakes, maybe your way of thinking will change [too]." 

(Reporting by Sally Mairs)