Thailand’s military government got almost all it wanted in the country’s draft constitution, which will now be put to the people in a referendum on August 7.
The next four months, however, will be a rough time for Thailand: the release of the draft was accompanied by a warning from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha that critics of the government could be detained for one-month for re-education.
Despite the tougher government line, the draft attracted criticism from the Pheu Thai party, the political grouping backed by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It issued a formal statement calling on people to reject the document.
The draft would give the military junta veto power over the government formed following the return to elections, at this stage scheduled for July next year.
This effective control would be for five years after the formation of a new government and would be exercised through the Senate.
The Constitutional Drafting Committee decided, at the behest of the military junta, that the Senate should be appointed. Essentially, the by the National Council for Peace and Order – the military junta – would select the 250-member upper house.
Six members of the top brass would be ex officio members.
The draft also leaves open the possibility, as the military suggested, that a future prime minister might be an outsider – someone not elected by the people.
It requires that political parties submit the names of three people as candidates for the top position before the elections are held. The House of Representatives would select the prime minister after the poll.
If the House could not agree on a candidate the way would be opened to choose an outsider.
The House would choose the prime minister. The Senate, however, would join in the vote on whether to reject the parties’ nominees and appoint someone else.
In a sign that the junta is determined to that the draft should pass the referendum, it stepped up the pressure on critics this week.
Until now, critics have been detained for several days for what the military calls attitude adjustment. Two Pheu Thai members who spoke out against the constitutional draft were detained over the weekend.
This week, army commander General Teerachai Nakwanich said the detentions were a warm up for the re-education sessions. Troublesome elements must be dealt with, he said.
General Prayut claimed credit for the “training course” proposal. “I initiated the idea myself,” he said. “In the past they [critics] were summoned to undergo ‘understanding’ but when they went back their behavior was unchanged.”
The result in the August 7 referendum will depend on whether the junta or its opponents can get out the vote.
The military government will dominate the debate between now and then. It has easy access to media – it instructs TV stations to provide the airtime – and is using soldiers to spread the message at community level.
Gatherings of more than five people are still banned. And the government will have the threat of detention to control critics.
The struggle over the constitution – and the future shape of governance in Thailand – will be less than equal.
Cameron Douglas is a businessman who travels to Bangkok frequently.