Thai junta-led assembly in debut meet as army extends grip

BANGKOK - Thailand's new military-stacked National Legislative Assembly convened for the first time on Friday, electing a president in a key step towards crafting a new constitution likely to embed the army's political influence.

Of the 197-strong assembly, just over half are serving or former military top brass, with the remainder also appointed by the junta which seized power from Thailand's elected government on May 22.

Members on Friday elected a president of the assembly, which will act as Thailand's lower and upper house pending the ratification of the new constitution.

Junta legal adviser Pornpetch Wichitcholchai "was unaminously endorsed as president," Somporn Thepsitha, acting chairman told the assembly.

Coup-leading Army Chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha is widely tipped by local media to be chosen as prime minister by the assembly in the coming days - although a clear timeframe has not been given.

Under an interim charter the junta will remain in place in parallel to the future government, which will be nominated by the new prime minister.

Thailand's army rulers say they want reforms before a new constitution paves the way for a fresh election late next year.

They say their power grab was necessary to prevent further violence and kick-start the economy after several months of protests left nearly 30 people dead and paralysed the former civilian government.

Now the assembly has convened, analysts say the junta may look to notch some early points by driving through policies that have were stalled during the months-long political crisis.

"Tons of bills have been waiting for the assembly to convene," said constitutional law expert Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang of Chulalongkorn University, explaining coups historically offer army leaders a chance to boost "their legitimacy" through decisive policy-making.

Thailand has been cleaved apart by political divisions since billionaire former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled in another coup in 2006, tipping the kingdom into a period of political turbulence, pock-marked by violence linked to frequent protests by rival sides.

Observers say the new constitution will likely target Thaksin's political influence, which has already been battered by the coup and a subsequent purge of his pointmen in government, state industries and the police.

Academic Khemthong urged those involved in writing the new charter to build in safeguards to ensure power does not go unchecked.

"The constitution should answer the question of who watches the watchmen," he added.