BANGKOK — Thailand's military ruler said his Cabinet will decide whether to hold a referendum on the new constitution written by a junta-appointed committee.
Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the May 2014 coup, said he will endorse the decision reached by a majority of Cabinet members, who he selected after installing himself as Prime Minister last year.
Junta chairman and Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha at the Government House in Bangkok, 14 May 2015.
The general, who is also chairman of the ruling junta, declined to comment further on the referendum question, saying he did not want to influence the Cabinet members before a formal voting session is held.
"If I say now, the people in the Cabinet will be too afraid to voice different opinions," he said. "I don't want that. So I cannot say anything right now."
The junta, whose official name is the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), dissolved the previous charter after toppling an elected government last May.
Gen. Prauyth said the Cabinet, not the junta, will decide on the referendum because "the NCPO is all soldiers. None of them are lawyers. Therefore, whether there will be a referendum, what topic, and how, I alone cannot [decide]. And the NCPO alone cannot either."
His announcement came after the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) voiced its official support for a referendum yesterday. A committee spokesperson said the recommendation would be presented to Gen. Prayuth in the form of a letter, though the junta chairman said he has yet to receive one.
"I have not received the letter," Gen. Prayuth said. "It's not like I can just receive it because the media reported about it. I have not received any letter. As for the next procedure, once I have received the formal letter, I will have the Cabinet deliberate on on the matter."
If the majority of the Cabinet agrees to a referendum, the government will ask the National Legislative Assembly to amend the current interim constitution accordingly, Gen. Prayuth said. The interim charter, enacted by the junta after the coup, does not mention a referendum.
Deputy Prime Minister Visanu Kruengam confirmed to reporters today that the Cabinet will meet on 19 May to vote on the referendum. If adopted, the poll would likely take place in December or January, several months after the charter is set to be finalized in September 2015.
"We cannot do it in a week's time," Visanu explained.
Like Gen. Prayuth, Visanu declined to offer his personal opinion whether there should be a referendum, saying "I cannot answer that, because I am one of the Cabinet. If I [answer], it will be seen as an opinion of the Cabinet. So, I don't want to speak through the media."
The junta’s charter draft has drawn criticism from pro-democracy activists and politicians from major parties. 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.
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.
Yesterday, Gen. Prayuth suggested he was irritated by the question of a referendum. In a speech at a forum on Thai agriculture in Nonthaburi province, he expressed frustration by the media's persistent questions on the topic.
"They keep asking me, will you do it, how will you do it, they just keep asking! What do they want from me?" Gen. Prayuth fumed. "The reporters have asked me so many times that I feel annoyed. I won't answer them about it anymore. I would rather spend time thinking about running the country."
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