What has a world war got to do with the new Thai charter?

opinion April 27, 2017 01:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

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When I sat down with Meechai Ruchupan, chairman of the constitution drafting committee, it wasn’t to chat about the rising tension on the Korean Peninsula. But the war scenario did come up.

I asked the law guru the question on many people’s lips: If the “road map” is strictly followed under the new charter, when will the general election take place? Meechai, without the slightest hesitation, responded: “If things run according to schedule, the end of 2018 should be the latest – unless a world war breaks out, that is.”

I didn’t follow up by asking whether he thought a new global war could break out and prevent Thailand from returning to the democratic path. That would have been disrespectful.

But I did raise the possibility of a tricky legal twist: What if one of the organic laws failed to get the required two-thirds majority vote from the National Legislative Assembly (NLA)?

Legal experts have indeed raised that possibility, however remote it may be. The concern is that the current constitution has no provision to cope with that scenario.

“That’s technically possible but in practice not probable,” Meechai told me. His argument is simple: Nobody would want to be seen to be rocking the boat.

Cynics, of course, have their own reason for raising the issue. Suspicious minds have pointed to this absence in the charter as evidence for their belief that the military-led powers-that-be might want to remain in power despite the promise to hold elections.

According to this conspiracy theory, the loophole in the constitution is no accidental omission. Critics claim that the charter writers deliberately left it open in order that elections could be postponed indefinitely in a move that could still be considered “legal” and “legitimate”.

Meechai brushed that theory aside. In his typical soft but firm tone, the chief charter writer declared: “Apart from a world war, I cannot think of other political incidents that would delay elections. A delay because of organic laws won’t happen either. That would ruin my own reputation.”

The stakes are high, not only for him, as the country’s foremost constitutional architect, but also for those currently in power. Meechai said he had heard that Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has also begun his own countdown to election day, “just like me”.

If Meechai has got it right, the PM has no wish to tamper with the road map to Election Day. “This task is very exhausting – and because the PM is hot-tempered, he works unceasingly. That must be quite exhausting for him. But he is just doing his best. Some people may think he is working hard because he wants to stay on. That, I think, isn’t the case,” he said.

Assuming that elections will indeed take place as scheduled, the other big question is whether the new constitution will guarantee improvement of politics – and will we end up with better politicians?

Meechai couldn’t say he was confident of that outcome. But he did confirm his belief that politicians will have to be “more careful”.

The new provisions stipulate tough penalties for politicians who violate the ground rules. “Those that aren’t aware of the new landscape could be barred from politics for life if they take wrong steps that violate the principles of good and responsible politics,” he told me.

Some of the new provisions to put an end to corrupt politics include a lifetime ban for anyone caught buying votes in an election. Previous charters had stipulated a five-year ban.

“Under the new rules, any politician who challenges the sanctity of the new constitution could find the door to politics shut tight, which is equivalent to being pronounced dead in the political arena,” the charter drafting committee chief said.

Will this be his last constitution? I asked him how many charters had he been involved in drafting, one way or another. It took him a while to recall before he settled on a figure: Five.

Meechai is 78. He admitted to using sleeping pills at night since becoming involved in the drafting of the current charter. “I want to sleep soundly at night after an exhausting day working with the committee members on this draft,” he said.

Yes, this will be his last constitution – the country’s 20th – because he doubts he would be physically fit to take up the challenge if needed again.

It might also be difficult to match the experience of heading the panel that drew up this latest charter.

“Working on this draft has been the most exciting experience for me. I wasn’t sure whether the draft would be approved in the referendum until the last minute. I wasn’t sure whether the people in general would accept the new provisions – until now,” he confessed.

However, while he may have had the final say on the charter as its chief architect, Meechai obviously realises he isn’t in a position to say whether there is going to be a world war in the next 18 months.