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Thailand's New Constitution May Open Up Democracy

Thailand's New Constitution May Open Up Democracy


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's new constitution should boost the right to strike and form unions, end discrimination against politicians without Bachelor's degrees, nationalize public and security infrastructure, and allow people to vote from any ballot box in the country, reformists said.

After crushing free speech, banning political activity, detaining former elected officials, and clamping Thailand under military rule, Bangkok's new coup leaders promised to install an interim prime minister within two weeks, write a new constitution to replace the now-trashed 1997 charter, and stage a nationwide election in one year.

The coup leaders cited alleged "loopholes" in the previous constitution, written with idealism and expectations for democracy after a brutal 1991 military coup ended in a bloody, popular insurrection.

The new coup leaders ordered people to call the junta, The Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM), giving people fresh hope the constitution would be reformed to benefit the masses.

A draft of an interim constitution was nearly finished, former deputy prime minister Wissanu Kreangarm told the Judicial Affairs Office on Saturday (September 23).

He said a draft would be submitted to the former Senate speaker, Meechai Ruchuphan, for consideration by the coup makers -- possibly on Monday (September 25) -- but no date was set for a final version.

The 1997 constitution was imperfect.

But politicians, institutions, non-government organizations, voters and others also lacked political will to enforce existing laws because of apathy, corruption, conflicts of interest, centralization of power, confusion and fear of extrajudicial execution, imprisonment or other harassment.

"Basically, the call for political reform in Thailand today hinges on the principle of reducing government authority, and increasing 'people power'," the Bangkok Post said in a Sunday (September 24) analysis of the constitutional crisis.

"Labor groups feel that workers' issues were neglected in the 1997 constitution," it said.

Article 107 and Article 125 of the old constitution demanded politicians must have a Bachelor's degree to be candidates for Parliament's House of Representatives and Senate.

Only about 10 percent of Thailand's 65 million population has a B.A. degree, according to the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee which wants to delete that requirement so more working class people, and elite figures who do not have a degree, can achieve power.

Article 102 was another stumbling block, because it allowed Thais to vote only from the district where their residence is registered, the committee noted.

As a result, many people had to travel from Bangkok, for example, back to their countryside town or village where they registered years earlier, despite later moving to the big city.

Updating home registration is a time-consuming procedure, which many people dislike and ignore.

Ironically, much of toppled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's support came from the countryside. But when rural people flocked to Bangkok for jobs, they neglected to update their registration and did not go home to vote, skewing the tally in Bangkok which overwhelmingly voted against his Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party candidates.

Thais can form union and other labor groups, but many want the cumbersome process streamlined, with guarantees against bosses who threaten or pressure workers.

The National Social and Economic Advisory Commission asked for the old constitution's labor-linked Article 45 to be rewritten and better enforce its standards, to align closer to international groups -- which Thailand already works alongside -- including the International Labor Organization (ILO) and others, to further boost the right to organize and collectively bargain.

Leftists and labor activists have pushed to add an article to forbid any state enterprise involved in national security, or public infrastructure, being privatized.

Many of Mr. Thaksin's enemies, who now support the coup, strongly oppose globalization, multinational corporations, and demands by the U.S. for Thailand to sign a free trade agreement.

They were expected to demand a new constitution reflect their dislike of an unfettered free market, and include stronger language favoring welfare, while curbing the ability for markets to be manipulated, monopolized, or exploited by speculators.

It was unclear how much influence they will have, or who will use the proposed draft to write a final constitution.

They cheered when Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin led a faction of Thailand's U.S.-armed military in a bloodless coup on Tuesday (September 19) while Mr. Thaksin was in New York City attending the United Nations and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The coup also secured the blessing of Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a constitutional monarch whose bespectacled face graces all paper currency and coins.

Influential politicians, lawyers, businessmen, academics and others were vying for a chance to create the new charter, prompting demands that the process be open and transparent to prevent future problems.

Protesters who paralyzed Bangkok's streets during demonstrations against Mr. Thaksin during the past seven months also included Buddhist fundamentalists who frowned on alcohol and abortion.

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Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/asia_correspondent

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