Thais Debate Controversial Draft Constitution

Nontarat Phaicharoen
160803-TH-debate-620.jpg Boonyod Suktinthai, an ex-MP with the Democrat Party, speaks during a debate on Thailand’s draft constitution at Bangkokthonburi University in Bangkok, Aug. 2, 2016.

Updated at 3:24 a.m. ET on 2016-08-04

With a constitutional referendum in Thailand just days away, the atmosphere inside the conference room at Bangkokthonburi University was charged as a panel of three debated the draft charter.

Some 300 people from all walks of life crowded into the room at the Bangkok campus to listen to a rare public discussion about an issue that could shape the future of their country, which is under military rule.

A man in the audience at Tuesday’s event, who identified himself as Uthai, complained about the lack of clarity in questions that would appear on Sunday’s ballot.

He also bristled about how Thailand’s Election Commission had only published 1 million hard copies of the proposed constitution for an electorate of 50.6 million voters, although the EC had posted the document on its website months ago.

“We haven’t seen a single copy of the charter,” Uthai told BenarNews, echoing a complaint voiced by other Thais in recent weeks.

Tuesday’s event was one of 68 debates about the referendum that were expected to unfold in 74 of Thailand’s 77 provinces between July 29 and Aug. 4.

The Election Commission, the body that will oversee Sunday’s pivotal vote, had packed in all those debates within the space of a few days, after announcing last week that it was allocating time and money for limited public discussions on the issue.

The move was remarkable because, up until July 29 and since the draft charter was unveiled in late March, Thailand’s military-controlled government had virtually banned public discussions or campaigning related to the Aug. 7 referendum. During the past four months, Thai authorities have detained or arrested scores of political activists who have spoken out against the proposed constitution.

When people like Uthai will step into polling stations nationwide on Sunday, the ballot before them will ask voters to answer two questions: to vote “yes” or “no” for the proposed charter; and to indicate whether they agree to a clause in it that would allow a “joint parliamentary assembly” – made up of 250 government-appointed senators and 500 elected MPs – to pick a non-elected prime minister.

Uthai said he was upset because of the vague wording on the ballot that, according to him, does not spell out the implications of the second question.

“And we only know today that the 250 senators will also be entitled to select a prime minister. Why does the question not state it more clearly? We want to know,” he said.


Under the normal format of Thailand’s parliamentary system, the political party that wins the most seats through popular elections will form a new government, single party or coalition, and then nominate a leader as prime minister.

But the clause in the proposed charter is controversial because it would allow an “outsider” or non-elected parliamentarian to become prime minister, a stipulation that has riled its opponents.

“To allow senators to select a prime minister is undemocratic,” Boonyod Suktinthai, a former MP for the opposition Democrat Party, and a panelist at the forum at Bangkokthonburi University, told the audience.

“Therefore, we need to consider the additional question with care. I don’t accept the charter,” said Boonyod, whose center-right party is Thailand’s oldest.

Another panelist, Chavalit Wichayasut, a former parliamentarian from the opposition Pheu Thai party, agreed with Boonyod.

“Section 3 of the charter says the power belongs to the Thai citizens. But I am afraid that it is just big word only, when 250 senators can also select the premier,” said Chavalit, whose party leader, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was toppled in a coup that brought the junta to power in May 2014.

None of the three panelists represented the “yes” camp in the referendum campaign. But Yuthahporn Isarachai, a professor at Sukothai Thammathirat University in Pak Kret, Nonthaburi province, offered a more neutral perspective on the draft charter.

“If both questions pass, the elections will be held in October 2017. If the charter passes but the second question fails, the elections will be in July 2017,” Yuthaporn told the forum.

If a majority of voters rejected both questions on the ballot, then elections would take place in December 2017, he explained.

Designed to ensure stability

The junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC), which drew up the charter that will be voted on Sunday, has argued that it will help restore political stability in Thailand by preventing corruption and other abuses of power by politicians.

Lt. Gen. Nanthadej Meksawat, an adviser to former Prime Minister Surayudh Chulanond, who came to power after the 2006 coup that toppled Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin, expressed optimism that the coming referendum would succeed.

“There will be a bigger percentage of voters coming to vote than not. And it is likely that the majority of them will accept the charter,” Nanthadej told BenarNews in a phone interview.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Surayudh Chulanond as the leader of the 2006 coup.


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