Ray of charter hope for end to unrest

Ray of charter hope for end to unrest

Pro-democracy protesters hold up at the three-finger salute at Democracy Monument during an anti-government rally in Bangkok earlier this month. (Photo by Nutthawat Wichieanbut)
Pro-democracy protesters hold up at the three-finger salute at Democracy Monument during an anti-government rally in Bangkok earlier this month. (Photo by Nutthawat Wichieanbut)

Progress in the charter rewrite process, with parliamentary endorsement of two draft bills proposed by the government and the opposition, gives a ray of hope that there could be a peaceful solution to the ongoing political conflict.

The two bills passed on Nov 8 stipulate the formation of a panel tasked with rewriting the charter.

It's known that the 2017 military-sponsored charter was written in a way that makes amendments almost impossible, with a number of tough requirements. The charter passed in a referendum that was organised under tight military control, with 61%:38%, or 16.8 million votes against 10.5 million. Meanwhile, a trick question about the power of the military-appointed Senate to name the prime minister was approved by 58%:41%, or 15.1 million votes against 10.9 million.

The 2017 charter contains a number of non-democratic clauses that enable the regime to gain political advantages over its opponents. The most controversial one is the power of the Senate to name the prime minister for five years, and also the 20-year reform plan that is seen as a mechanism to allow the regime to cling on to power. This caused growing public discontent that led to enormous pressure for amendments, despite all the state mechanisms, and civil and military officials that favour the government. Part of the pressure is from coalition parties which realise that unless the government bends to the pro-democracy movement's demands, the country could plunge into crisis.

In fact, the charter drafting panel under military-leaning law guru Meechai Ruchuphan must have envisaged a long tenure for the government in the post-coup era, at least two terms in power, with support from 250 senators. No one ever thought the discontent would explode into a No-Prayut campaign, as well as demands for monarchy reform. This is a costly lesson for the government in not allowing democracy to return and run its course.

The powers-that-be are used to underestimating the people, thinking that they have no political awareness, but what's happened is just the opposite. The charter amendment process, which is a start, will be a crucial transition in Thailand's politics, given the confrontation between royalist and anti-establishment groups.

The public is pinning its hopes on the charter rewrite process, believing that, with fair new rules agreed by all factions, and independent bodies that are really free, the country might avoid violence. Many people wish to see the same atmosphere as in 1997, when the "People's Charter" was promulgated. Even without a referendum, it was deemed the best charter the country has ever had, as it upheld the principle of public participation, and it was the first time that the country had a set of independent bodies working to maintain transparency and the rule of law.

But it will take one and a half or two years for the new charter to be completed.

The process will begin with the work of a House panel on rewriting the charter which will meet on Nov 24 to name the panel chair and to set the structure and composition of the new drafting committee. This process must be completed within 45 days, and then it will submit its proposal to parliament which will organise a referendum, asking if the people agree with the whole charter rewrite. The referendum would take place around March or April next year.

According to a composition model proposed by the government, the 200-strong charter rewrite panel is to come from four sectors -- 150 elected members from each province, 20 members selected by parliament; 20 law experts; and 10 student activist representatives.

The panel is expected to have 240 days or eight months to do its work, similar to the panel for the 1997 charter. Bur given the escalating conflict, the time frame could be shortened to six months in order that the next election will be held sooner. We must not forget that the draft will have to go through parliamentary scrutiny and approval. It requires at least half of the parliament's votes. In case it receives less than half, there will be an extra referendum.

The new charter will have to be submitted to the palace. Even if it receives the royal blessing, it will take another three months for relevant organic laws, including the election act, the political parties act and the election commission act to be promulgated. This means the Prayut government has to stay on longer.

There will be a swath of challenges given the expectations for democracy, meaning the charter must get rid of mechanisms that allow the old regime to prolong its grip on power.

What is most important at this stage is assurances that the CDC will be inclusive, with representatives from all sectors, free of state and Senate control. The government's proposal for the CDC's composition that allows 20 members from parliament could give the government a chance to pick its military network and this could stir discontent.

Not to mention that there are uncertainties regarding further confrontations between the two opposing groups that may snowball into violence, or another military intervention, which would likely mean the whole rewrite process will be stalled.

Avoiding those predicaments will require restraint from all parties, to have another people's charter, which would be the 21st, by around 2022. Let's hope that we can get past all the difficulties and give democracy a fair chance.

Chairith Yonpiam

Assistant news editor

Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.

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