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Thai Military Rulers Write New Constitution

Thailand's Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha at the Royal Thai Army Club in Bangkok, Thailand on July 19, 2014.
Thailand's Army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha at the Royal Thai Army Club in Bangkok, Thailand on July 19, 2014.
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Thailand’s military rulers have written a temporary constitution that lets the army keep a great deal of power. The army chief could also become the country’s next prime minister under the measure. The army chief now controls the government and the legislature.

The constitution recognizes the military overthrow of the civilian government on May 22nd. It gives military rulers control over the country’s political leaders and its judges.

The military is now to choose the 220 members of a legislature to replace the House of Representatives and the Senate. That legislature is then to choose a prime minister and cabinet. The constitution bars anyone who ever held a position in a political party from consideration.

It also requires members of the new legislature to be at least 40 years old. It bars anyone who has ever been removed from a government position for what the document calls “corruption, fraud or misconduct.”

Narongchai Akrasanee is a former commerce minister. He is an economic advisor to the military government. He says the process will likely lead to elections in October, 2015.

“The timeline is like this now we have the interim constitution: names of members of the NLA, the national legislative assembly, would be announced most likely within two weeks and the government would be formed after that. And as General Prayuth said, the government with military participation would be in place definitely in September.”

On Tuesday, Thailand’s King supported the new constitution in a ceremony with General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief. The ceremony suggested the king approved of the ousting of the civilian government.

In the next few months, the proposed new legislature is expected to name members to a committee that will write a permanent constitution.

Experts believe General Prayuth will be named prime minister by the new legislature.

The new constitution meets most of the demands of the protestors who had gathered in the capital Bangkok for months. They had called for the removal of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They also had demanded formation of a committee to govern the country. They wanted it to establish political reforms before holding new elections.

Few people are willing to criticize the new constitution. That is because the military has the power to detain anyone who says something it believes could cause unrest.

The military rulers have decreased the freedom to report news in Thailand. The media restrictions are the strongest ordered in many years.

A member of Thai Students for Democracy spoke to VOA by Skype. He says his hidden group will not follow the military’s rules. He says the new constitution was put in place by what he calls a “system of tyrants.”

“The latest military junta is still maintaining the value of constitutional and freedom. But right now our value of constitution's check-and-balances, freedoms and liberty has gone. This is so ridiculous for them to do it like this because it means we’re back to the situation like in Burma with the military rule. This is a huge step back for democratic development in this country.”

Others oppose the new constitution. Messages on social media say the document hurts democracy in the country. Some believe the new constitution will permit a small group of rich people to rule.
The military rulers say the constitution will, in its words, “help solve the crisis and return the situation to normal, restore security, unity and solve economic problems.” A reform committee will write rules that military leaders say will prevent and suppress corruption and investigate abuses of those in power.

Rule by the King ended in Thailand in 1932. Since then, many civilian governments have been ousted by the military. The generals or judges have ousted three civilian governments since 2006.

Billionaire politician Thaksin Shinawatra supported parties that won the last five national elections in Thailand. He was ousted as prime minister in 2006.

Military officials say they want to prevent Thaksin Shinawatra from influencing politics ever again. In 2008 a military-controlled committee found him guilty of corruption. He fled the country. If he returns, he will be imprisoned.

His younger sister -- Yingluck Shinawatra -- was ousted as prime minister this year after six months of protests in Bangkok.

General Prayuth seized control of the government soon after that ousting. The government has since questioned and temporarily detained hundreds of people. Most are believed to be supporters of the Shinawatras or critics of the military or of Thailand’s strong laws against criticizing the king.

General Prayuth says the ouster of the civilian government was necessary. He said there had been a long period of time when political leaders were unable to govern the country. He says the military will improve democracy in Thailand and will, in his words, “return happiness to the people.”

I’m Jonathan Evans

This story was adapted from a report by VOA reporter Steve Herman in Bangkok.