When Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha promised two years ago to make frequent and important use of his Section 44 powers under the interim charter, he wasn't joking. He stunned Bangkok and MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra last week with an order suspending the governor from work. And he signed a second order under Section 44 that is far more sensitive. The order to address misunderstandings on the new constitution's clauses on religion could see matters worsen before they improve.
The draft constitution approved by referendum voters includes several references to religion in general, Buddhism in particular. For reasons they have not shared with the nation, chairman Meechai Ruchupan and members of his Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) made changes from previous charters. Religion always has been approached carefully by constitution writers. The state and the monarchy have always guaranteed freedom of religion, and protection for all, no matter what their beliefs.
The introduction to the newly approved charter repeats all recent charters that, "The King is a Buddhist and upholder of religions." But Section 67 gets down to the details, and these have troubled some -- including, apparently, the prime minister. The 2007 constitution, for example, said that, "The state shall provide patronage and protection to Buddhism... and other religions." It mandated that the state "shall promote good understanding and harmony amongst followers of all religions". The new charter approved at the Aug 7 referendum, however, has nothing about religious harmony. It provides a list of reasons why the state will support propagation of Buddhist principles, and provide special protection "to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form".
It must be noted the change in the wording occurred after the CDC prudently and properly turned down demands to make Buddhism the state religion. Thailand is a secular state and must remain so. Yet it is curious and publicly unexplained why Mr Meechai and the CDC changed the long-standing wording, and abandoned the constitutional appeal to religious harmony.
Among the first to note and criticise this change of emphasis was the Wadah political group of the deep South. In the days before the referendum, leaders of that sectarian group strongly criticised the new wording on religion. Just as bad as that divisive talk, the government ignored it. That probably was the reason the three southernmost provinces not only turned on the rest of the region to reject the draft charter, but voters in Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani defaced and ruined twice as many ballots as everywhere else in the country.
It is admirable that Prime Minister Prayut moved last week to wield his Section 44 powers on the issue. His order formed a special committee that specifically recalled the constitutional language from 2007 and before. The committee is charged with seeking to "promote good understanding and harmony" -- the exact words dropped by the Meechai-led CDC.
The prime minister's move received a warm welcome by the national leaders of Islam, Christianity and other religions who attended a special meeting last week. All, including the spiritual leader of the Muslims, Chularatchamontri Aziz Phitakkumpon, gave quick approval to the attempt by Gen Prayut to repair the damage done by the CDC. Mr Aziz is from the deep South.
The people who won't buy the premier's Section 44 repairs are the rebels of the deep South. It is separatists and their pawns who will use the religious issue in coming weeks and months as a propaganda bludgeon. Gen Prayut supported special action to amend the draft on the issue of the senate. He should consider special amendments to fix this possibly divisive issue immediately.