A closer look at the charter bill dividing Parliament – and the nation
Parliament today begins a two-day debate on seven motions seeking amendments to the Constitution, but public attention will be focused on the bill proposed by iLaw aimed at the most radical change to the current charter.
Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw) – a Thai human rights non-governmental organisation – is the only group outside Parliament to have an amendment draft tabled for debate by lawmakers.
The draft is also civil society’s first ever charter amendment motion to have successfully made it to parliamentary debate – and the only one of seven motions to win the support of the anti-establishment protesters.
As well as seeking to erase the legacy of the 2014 coup, iLaw’s controversial draft is unique for targeting the charter’s first two chapters, which have been left untouched over decades of many different Thai Constitutions.
Supporters of iLaw’s bill say it benefits the general public by promoting democracy while curbing the powers of authoritarians in Thai politics.
Detractors question iLaw’s legitimacy in proposing legislation to amend Thailand’s constitution, especially given the fact that the NGO is funded by several foreign organisations.
The bill’s opponents also paint dismal scenarios if iLaw’s proposed amendments come into effect, including a political vacuum in government lasting at least six months and a “virtual amnesty” for politicians convicted of corruption.
Opposition MP Rangsiman Rome, from the Kao Klai (Move Forward) Party, said there are five reasons why parliamentarians should vote for iLaw’s so-called “people’s bill”.
The amendment draft is backed by more than 98,000 voters, he points out, and aims to scrap legal mechanisms that allowed the 2014 coup-makers to stay on in power.
“Also, the amendment bill requires that all members of the constitution drafting assembly [CDA] are elected,” Rangsiman wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday (Nov 15).
And iLaw’s bill “does not yield to a monopoly of power by a small group of people”, the opposition MP added.
The politician also noted that iLaw’s bill would allow public debate on the monarchy.
He criticised the bill’s opponents for spreading “unwarranted” fears of widespread chaos if changes were made to chapters 1 and 2 of the Constitution, on the status of Thailand as a Kingdom and of the King, respectively.
He said these two chapters were often altered when new charters were written after coups.
“Parliament must confirm it has the power to amend the Constitution for the people and meet their demands, in a way that is not subordinate to coup-makers,” Rangsiman said.
iLaw is pushing for “Five Changes & Five Revocations” in the current charter, which has been in force since April 2017.
The changes stipulate that the prime minister must be an MP and all senators must be elected. Meanwhile the senators would be stripped of their “special powers”, including voting to choose the PM.
Also, the draft would amend the current charter to allow an elected drafting assembly to rewrite the Constitution.
The proposed revocations target constitutional clauses that allow a non-elected candidate to become prime minister and pardon the coup-makers for seizing power in 2014.
The bill also seeks to repeal the post-coup junta’s so-called 20-year national strategy plan, as well as its national reform plan.
The NGO says that parliamentary endorsement of its bill would lead to at least four changes.
First, Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, who led the 2014 coup as the then-Army chief, would have to step down since he would become unqualified.
Second, the junta-appointed Senate would be vacated and replaced by an elected one.
Third, a process would begin for the selection of new Constitutional Court judges and new members of independent organisations, using provisions under the 1997 Constitution.
Lastly, a new Constitution would be drafted by an elected CDA.
However, opponents of iLaw’s bill disagree with the rosy picture painted by its backers.
Senator Kamnoon Sidhisamarn predicted disaster if an appointed Senate is replaced with an elected one, if all seven constitutional organic laws – including the Anti-Corruption Act – are repealed, and if the Constitutional Court and independent agencies are “purged”.
“The country would fall into a political vacuum – with no laws against corruption – for at least six months if the proposed legislation comes into force,” Kamnoon warned in a Facebook post early this month.
He pointed out that new senators would have to be elected, new judges and independent commissioners selected, and new laws issued to replace those repealed.
Repealing the anti-corruption law would “in effect be an amnesty for corruption convicts”, he added.
MP Sira Jenjaka from the ruling Palang Pracharath Party declared he would vote against iLaw’s bill, claiming its “hidden agenda” was to whitewash convicted corrupt politicians, as well as those banned from politics by the court.
“This is tantamount to offering an amnesty to all those people convicted under the anti-corruption law,” he said yesterday (Nov 16).
iLaw’s bill would also result in the annulment of all anti-graft laws accompanying the current charter and would allow convicted criminals to contest elections by removing the relevant ban in the Constitution, he said.
Six opposition parties on Monday resolved to vote yes to all seven drafts, including iLaw’s motion, which they saw no reason to reject as it represents “the voice of the people”.
However, coalition parties and the Senate are almost certain to block the bill, citing the untouchable and sacrosanct status of chapters on the monarchy. The government whip said that lawmakers would listen to the debate before making any decisions.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk