Charupong vows unity, charter bid

Decision about Section 291 changes 'due soon'

New Pheu Thai Party leader and Interior Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan has vowed to press ahead with the controversial reconciliation and charter amendment bills, renewing fears of a new round of political unrest.

In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, he said the government would proceed with amending the charter while at the same time push the so-called national reconciliation bills through a referendum and public forums. The whole process should be completed within this parliamentary session, said Mr Charupong.

Earlier this week, Pheu Thai secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai said the ruling party's leadership was restructured especially to expand membership, a strategy that will support an attempt to change the charter.

Mr Phumtham said Pheu Thai would try to persuade the public to accept the reasons for the changes.

Chusak Sirinil, a Pheu Thai legal adviser, said on Tuesday the coalition's working group on constitutional amendments will decide soon whether to proceed with the third reading of the bill to amend Section 291 of the constitution. Mr Chusak is a member of the working group. He said the government plans to change Section 291 to pave the way for a constitution drafting assembly to write a new charter.

Moves to amend Section 291 stopped on July 13, after opponents asked the Constitution Court to rule whether the proposed changes were part of a plan to overthrow the monarchy.

At that point, the Pheu Thai-led government backed away from deliberation of the bill in its third and final reading.

The House voted on May 31 to move the four reconciliation bills to the top of the agenda for urgent deliberation.

This was met by opposition from the Democrat Party and a protest by the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy, which blockaded parliament on June 1 to prevent lawmakers debating the bills.

The Democrats and yellow shirts have since decried the legislation as an attempt to whitewash ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra's crimes. The House went into recess on June 19 without deliberating the bills. The bills have since been shelved.

Mr Charupong admitted the Interior Ministry had been unsuccessful in previous efforts to organise public forums on the constitutional amendment attempts because it lacked knowledgeable speakers.

To resolve this, the government would now search for qualified figures known to be politically neutral _ not being branded either yellow- or red-shirt people, said the Pheu Thai Party leader.

These figures could be academics from several educational institutions and their main task would be to screen people who would take part in the public forums to be organised by the ministry's Community Development Department, he said.

All the reconciliation and charter amendment bills would be aired together at the public hearings to reduce the costs of organising the forums, according to Mr Charupong.

"Both issues [reconciliation and charter amendment] are equally important," he said.

The minister conceded that society is still greatly divided on the two issues. He said, however, that the the charter amendment bills could not be left pending in parliament and had to be passed within this current session.

The government would never attempt to exacerbate the situation. It would proceed with patience and try to listen to the public more, he said.

"This will not happen [without listening to opposing voices]," he said.

The large turn-out at the Pitak Siam rally last Sunday was a reminder that the government cannot afford to be complacent, he said.

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Writer: Aekarach Sattaburuth & Nattaya Chetchotiros