Concern over special powers for Thai junta in new charter

Concern over special powers for Thai junta in new charter
Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha (left) receiving the interim Constitution from Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the royal palace in Hua Hin. The junta has remained tight-lipped about when it will lift martial law.

THAILAND'S interim Constitution, enacted on Tuesday two months after its 12th military coup, gives the semblance of a civilian administration.

But it comes with a clause that gives the junta special powers to deal with crises, which raises questions about how long the military will continue to hold on to the reins of power.

Despite whittling down public opposition and snuffing out the possibility of major unrest with the use of pre-emptive detentions and mass surveillance, the junta remains tight-lipped about when it will lift martial law.

At a press conference yesterday, the junta's legal adviser Wissanu Krea-Ngam said the power to lift martial law will be jointly held by the incoming interim Cabinet and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) - as the junta calls itself.

But he also gave enough timelines to mitigate the concerns of foreign governments eager to see ASEAN's second-largest economy return to democracy.

For instance, he said a 220-member national legislative assembly will be appointed by the end of next month. It can pass laws as well impeach a future prime minister if it so chooses.

It will last for about a year before elections are presumably held.

Meanwhile, a national reform assembly, which will determine longer-term changes for the kingdom in South-east Asia, is expected to convene by October.

Dr Wissanu tried to assuage fears about the reach of the NCPO's powers. "The NCPO has no power to interfere with the business of the government or the Cabinet," he said. The NCPO is only a consultative body, he added, whose "advice" can either be accepted or rejected by the incoming government.

"They work together," he said.

Still, similar questions about the NCPO's powers kept on coming, partly because, as one analyst pointed out, there was no actual guarantee within the 48-article provisional charter that put any curbs on it.

Observers reckon most of the control will be exercised upstream anyway, through the NCPO's appointments.

"It will appoint those who will listen (to it) or read its mind," historian Thanet Aphornsuvan told The Straits Times.

But all the debate about checks and balances may be moot if junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha assumes the post of prime minister.

There is no legal barrier to stop him from wearing both hats.

Since coming to power on May 22, the army chief has steadily purged the bureaucracy of senior officials seen as having close links with the former government, and neutered the political network of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

With political opposition suppressed, it is public opinion, ultimately, that may provide a modest check on the junta's absolute power. Last week on Friday, the NCPO issued an order that effectively curbed any criticism of its work on all media.

After the subsequent uproar - and appeals from Thai media - it eventually scaled back the order to cover only ill-intentioned criticism.

Siam Intelligence Unit analyst Kan Yuenyong said the military has to manage sentiments in its own constituencies too.

"They don't want to get even the conservatives frustrated," he added.

This article was first published on July 24, 2014.
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