BANGKOK – Thai lawmakers moved to change parts of the country’s military-backed constitution after its highest court agreed to hear a case that may block them from doing so, signaling a renewed round of political tension.
Parliamentarians took an initial step early Thursday to approve three bills that would establish a fully elected Senate and make it harder for the courts to disband political parties. The Constitutional Court on Wednesday accepted a petition from an appointed senator seeking to block some of the amendments.
The battle is the latest between allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who have won the past five elections, and royalists who backed his ouster in a 2006 coup. Street protests since then have killed more than 100 people and led to takeovers of the airports and central business district.
“It looks like we have democracy, but in reality we are in the process of war,” said Kanin Boonsuwan, a constitutional law lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Now the court is doing something against the principle of democracy, against the representatives of the whole country.”
The nine-member Constitutional Court voted 3-2 to hear a case related to changing Article 68 and Article 237 of the constitution. Four judges didn’t vote because they were on overseas trips, according to court spokesman Somrit Chaiwong.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, also faces an investigation into her asset disclosure from the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The body was to meet later Thursday to decide whether to proceed with the probe.
Yingluck’s government is seeking to amend the constitution section by section after the court ruled last year that her government should hold a referendum before overhauling the entire charter. Changes to the constitution require approval from more than half of the lawmakers in the House of Representatives and Senate.
“The constitutional amendment will be for the nation’s benefit,” Yingluck told reporters Wednesday. Her party won a parliamentary majority in a 2011 election, a year after more than 90 people died when former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva ordered the military to disperse Thaksin-backed protesters calling for an election.
More than 56 percent of Thailand’s 645 active lawmakers in the House of Representatives and half-appointed Senate approved the three draft bills to amend the constitution in the first of three required votes. Committees will be set up within 15 days to examine the details of the legislation, according to House Speaker Somsak Kiatsuranont.
As well as altering clauses on the Senate and party dissolution, the bills would also require the attorney general to vet petitions to the Constitutional Court and make it easier for international agreements to be approved.
The constitution, written by a military-appointed assembly, granted generals amnesty for the 2006 coup, made it easier to dissolve political parties and gave judges a role in picking members of a half-appointed Senate.
Abhisit said in a statement Wednesday that the move to change the constitution could lead to conflict. His party opposes the proposed changes. “I don’t want to create any chaos and hope that the government is conscious to know that they shouldn’t cause any disorder,” he said.
Thaksin has lived overseas since fleeing a 2008 jail sentence stemming from charges brought by a military-appointed panel after the coup. His supporters have denounced the judiciary as biased, and several bills proposed in Parliament last year called for a broad amnesty for political crimes that would include the self-exiled billionaire.
Judges have played a key role in Thailand’s political conflict since King Bhumibol Adulyadej called on them in a speech five months before the coup to resolve a pending constitutional crisis. Since then, courts have voided an election won by Thaksin’s party, disbanded two parties linked to him, disqualified about 200 of his allies, sentenced him to jail and seized 46 billion baht ($1.6 billion) of his wealth.
Bhumibol, 84, has served as head of state since taking the throne in 1946 and appoints all the country’s judges, according to the constitution.