Criticism but no protest as Thai constitution debate begins

BANGKOK - Thailand on Monday began debating a draft constitution that critics say is anti-democratic, but political groups say they have no plans to protest as the one-year anniversary of a military coup approaches.

The charter, Thailand's 20th since 1932, was written by a 36-member Constitution Drafting Committee appointed by the junta, which seized power on May 22 following months of anti-government street protests.

It includes provisions that would allow for a non-elected person to serve as prime minister and a proportional representation electoral system which critics say would dilute the power of large parties and favour coalitions.

Coup leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha this month ended 10 months of martial law under which protests were banned, but invoked new security provisions the United Nations described as "even more draconian".

"There are a lot of issues in the new constitution that might not be suitable for Thai politics, including the weakening of political parties," Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, spokesman for the conservative Democrat Party, Thailand's oldest political party, told Reuters.

"We've passed on our concerns and hope they will be raised during the debate. There will be no street action. Absolutely not." Nipit Intarasombat, deputy leader of the Democrat Party, described most of the charter as "anti-democratic".

Chavanond said the party would wait for the debate to end before deciding what course of action to take.

The National Reform Council will have until Sunday to debate the 130-page draft before proposing changes to it within 30 days.

Provisions also include a curb on populist-style policies such as those favoured by ousted former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, Thaksin.

The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a traditional foe of the Democrat Party, said it had no plans to demonstrate against the new charter.

The pro-Shinawatra group wanted to avoid the kind of bloodshed that has blighted Thailand in recent years, said spokesman Thanawut Wichaidit.

"We do not want our brothers and sisters to waste their blood needlessly," Thanawut told Reuters.

Thailand has seen nearly a decade of political turmoil as Thaksin and his allies have vied for power with the traditional Bangkok elite threatened by his meteoric rise.

Thaksin was ousted in a previous coup in 2006 and lives abroad to avoid a jail sentence handed down for graft in 2008.