BANGKOK – Thailand’s proposed new constitution was unveiled to the public on Tuesday amid criticism the charter is undemocratic and gives too much power to the military that staged a coup two years ago.
The military government, which had banned criticism of the proposed constitution prior to its release, will hold a public referendum on the charter in August. That will be followed by elections that junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has promised for 2017.
“We have done our job,” Meechai Ruchupan, chairman of the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Commission, told reporters as he held a copy of the 105-page, 279-article draft charter.
“The important thing about this constitution, although there is no statement that people have the power — everybody has rights, everybody is equal, everybody is provided with protection,” Meechai said.
Politicians from both sides of Thailand’s political divide and human rights groups have opposed the draft, which includes clauses for a 250-member, fully appointed Senate that would be hand-picked by the junta, with six seats reserved for senior military officers and the national police chief.
It also includes a vaguely worded provision that critics say could allow the prime minister to be appointed rather than elected.
Ahead of its release, the military government banned criticism of the draft charter, and over the weekend detained a politician for a Facebook posting saying Prayuth should resign as prime minister if the constitution is rejected at the polls.
“We are trying to hold the junta accountable to its own pledge to return civilian democratic to Thailand, but this draft charter is showing the opposite,” said Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch. “It doesn’t give any promise of a democratic transition, but rather a prolonged control of the military.”
Prayuth has justified the military takeover as necessary to restore order after years of political upheaval and to rid Thailand of corruption and abuse of power. He has insisted that the new constitution will help him achieve those goals.
Prayuth has vowed to hold elections in mid-2017, but has not specified what would happen if the constitution is rejected.
The referendum will mark the first time Thais return to the ballot box since Prayuth led a May 2014 coup that toppled the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Critics say the charter and the overall goal of Prayuth is to prevent a political comeback by Yingluck’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed in a 2006 coup. Thailand has remained divided since, with Thaksin’s supporters and opponents struggling for power at the ballot box and in the streets, sometimes violently.
It is also widely believed that the army is concerned about stability when the throne passes from ailing 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has been the constitutional monarch since 1946. The military’s critics say the army wants to keep its grip on power to ensure a smooth succession.
Prayuth has restricted free speech in Thailand since the coup and barred public protests amid other crackdowns on civil liberties. The junta has generally equated criticism of its actions with incitement to unrest and instability.