SEPT. 6, 2015
Thailand's Military Junta Rejects Draft Constitution
By THOMAS FULLER
BANGKOK -- Thailand's military junta on Sunday extended its rule by at least seven months when its handpicked reform council rejected a constitution written by its own drafting committee.
The vote was described by some commentators as political theater and contributed to what appears to be growing cynicism in Thailand toward the military's reign. The vote in the National Reform Council was 135 against the constitution and 105 in favor. The junta will now appoint another body to start the process of writing a new constitution, a process that keeps the military in power well into 2016.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of the country's most prominent commentators, described the rejection of the constitution as "a sideshow in the junta's prolonged and indefinite rule."
Thailand's military, which seized power from a democratically elected government in May 2014, has given vague promises about a return to democracy. But it seems to be in no hurry to do it.
Sangsit Phiriyarangsan, a member of the National Reform Council who voted to pass the constitution, said he believed it was voted down because of a desire to postpone elections.
"They are afraid that if an election takes place, it may lead to indefinite chaos," he said on Thai television. "They are in agreement that we should extend the junta's rule to govern the country."
If the constitution had passed, it would have been put forward in a national referendum in January.
The military has absolute power in Thailand; the only remaining prominent elected official is the governor of Bangkok. Political parties are barred from politicking, and the junta last week revoked the passport of an outspoken politician.
Analysts said there were genuine disagreements and concerns about the draft constitution, including a provision that would have allowed for a "crisis" panel, including military members, to take control during times of "conflict that leads to violence."
Yet after appointing the constitutional drafting committee and overseeing the writing of the charter, the military itself appeared to take a leading role in scuttling it. More than two dozen military members of the National Reform Council voted against it on Sunday.
Borwornsak Uwanno, the head of the constitutional drafting committee, said after the vote that most military members of the council "had to listen to their senior people," suggesting the rejection of the constitution was orchestrated.
Jatupon Prompan, the chairman of a political movement known as the Red Shirts, said the constitutional drafting process was a "no-lose" proposition for the military.
If it had been passed, the country would have been stuck with what he described as a constitution that circumscribes democracy. Now with the rejection, the military can retain power.
"Whether it passed or not, the junta would have won," he said.
Ultimately, the rejection of the constitution appeared to be a victory for the political movement led by members of the Thai elite whose debilitating protests against the elected government last year led to the military coup.
The leaders of the group, known as the People's Democratic Reform Committee, or P.D.R.C., argue that Thailand is not ready for electoral democracy until unspecified reforms are carried out. They blocked elections last year.
Gen. Lertrat Ratanavanich, a member of the National Reform Council, said many of those who voted against the constitution believed in "reforms before elections," the mantra of the P.D.R.C.
Postponing elections is "good for the country from their perspective," he said.
There is no organized resistance against military rule, which comes at a time when the nation's long-reigning king is ill.
Under the junta's own rules, it must establish a new constitutional drafting committee within 30 days. The committee will have 180 days to write a new constitution.
The new constitution, however, will not be subject to a vote by the reform council and will instead be submitted directly to a referendum.
Poypiti Amatatham contributed reporting.