Charter panel angers reformists
The charter amendment process thought to have been ready for lift-off was aborted unexpectedly in the few final hours before parliamentarians were due to cast their votes to select a motion that would have set the stage for the rewriting of the constitution.
Nobody doubts the relationship between this week’s deliberation of charter amendment bills and the anti-government, studentled movement which has flexed its muscle over the past weeks.
Previously, a rewrite of the constitution had looked unlikely to materialise despite having been included in the government policy statement.
However, the changing political circumstances were believed to have made many government members think seriously about fixing the charter as campus rallies spearheaded by the Student Union of Thailand and the Free Youth movement grew against the government, according to political observers.
A total of six constitution amendment bills were tabled to parliament for debate with the one sponsored by government coalition parties mosy likely to be picked as the framework for the rewrite process — if any of the bills pass the first reading.
The government’s amendment bill paves the way for amending Section 256 to allow for the constitution to be more easily redrafted and for the formation of a Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) to draw up a more democratic charter.
The opposition and anti-government groups have underlined several demands for charter changes, one of them dealing with the scrapping of the coup-appointed senators who have a role to play in choosing a prime minister. The Senate’s power to help pick the country’s leader, according to the critics, was a legacy of the coup designed to retain Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister and downright unfair to other prime minister candidates.
Another amendment bill, which was put forward by the rights group, Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw), and described by the group as the “public’s draft”, arrived late, so it was not included in the Sept 23-24 parliament meeting agenda. House Speaker Chuan Leekpai could not allow it to be debated without having its content examined first.
While it is safe to say the government cannot turn back on the charter rewrite, some critics are concerned it may not be enough to keep the student activists off the streets.
Drawing a new charter is no simple matter and it is a time-consuming process.
For one of the six bills, which is backed up by the main opposition Pheu Thai Party, the charter rewrite process by the CDA is expected to take 15 months. The government version, according to some observers, would take at least 24 months to draft.
According to a source in the government, while those in power were relieved the Sept 19-20 rally, mobilised by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD), was not marred by violent confrontation, there is no guarantee the student movement under the UFTD banner will be prepared to wait out this process.
The latest developments in parliament, however, have raised fear of political unrest after the House voted on Thursday night to study the amendment motions before the MPs and senators decide whether or not to accept them for scrutiny.
A committee has been set up to conduct the study, a process which is expected to take a month.
The decision to form the committee angered the protesters and the opposition which was expecting parliament to at least vote the amendment motions for scrutiny.
Paiboon Nititawan, a Palang Pracharath Party MP, initiated the proposal to set up the committee which will comprise MPs from the coalition parties and senators. The opposition refused to be part of the panel.
The six motions will be studied for one month before the joint sitting reconvenes in November to vote again on whether to accept the motions in their first reading.
The study committee was criticised by opponents as a government tactic to put the issue of charter amendment on the back burner.
Senator Somjate Boonthanom has warned the proposals to amend Section 256 of the constitution to remove the powers of the Senate will lead to “a parliamentary dictatorship”. Also, rewriting or writing a new constitution should be approved by a referendum to keep the parliament from taking the matter into its own hands.
Paiboon: Calls for further study