Pressure to amend military-drafted constitution is growing

KHON KAEN – Activists and civil society groups in the Northeast have launched a campaign to draft a new constitution as youth protesters across the country are calling for democratic change.

More than 100 people joined an event in Khon Kaen last month to give input for the drafting of a new charter. It was the first of a series of nationwide forums planned by the Committee Campaigning for a People’s Constitution (CCPC), the Assembly of the Poor, and other civic groups.

The campaign aims to replace the 2017 constitution that was drafted by a military-appointed body and approved in a controversial referendum in 2016.

“The people want a new constitution, one that takes their opinions into account,” said Alongkorn Akkasaeng, an associate professor at Maha Sarakham University, who joined the event. “Because the current charter is not designed to solve problems and address the grievances of the people.”

The student protests that have taken place across the country in recent weeks, including several northeastern provinces, made the drafting of a new, democratic constitution a main demand.

The discussions at the event in Khon Kaen revolved around democracy, decentralization, the strengthening of community rights, educational reform, and gender equality.

Participants from across the Northeast developed ideas for the drafting of a new constitution at a workshop in Khon Kaen on July 26.

Push for gender equality

“The new constitution must support the welfare and education of all groups of women,” said Sompong Viengchan, a long-time activist with the Assembly of the Poor. “The power of the military must be reduced and its budget allocated for the welfare of women and the people.”

Sompong linked the need for decentralization of state power with a demand to empower women and increase their access to political decision-making. At least 50 percent of the representatives in the government’s social welfare committees should be women, she said.

The 2017 constitution, drafted by a body composed mostly of men, has no gender quota. Female leadership is common in Thailand’s business sector but in government and politics, Thai women are starkly underrepresented.

Sompong Viengchan became an activist when the Pak Mun hydropower dam disrupted the life of her community in Ubon Ratchathani in the early 1990s. She believes a new constitution must empower local communities and especially women to participate in governance.

Isaree Aphisirirujiphat, an activist with the Isaan Network for Gender Diversity from Buriram, criticized the current charter for not being inclusive of all genders. She argued that the wording of Section 27 which grants equal rights to “men and women,” should be amended to include identities outside the gender binary.

“Gender identities of people in Isaan and the rest of the country have become more diverse, like lifestyles or living arrangements and marriage,” Isaree said. “The state doesn’t provide protection to people of different gender identities.”

In 2015, the military government enacted the Gender Equality Act, criminalizing discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. But critics say the enforcement of the law has been bogged down by low public awareness and bureaucratic hurdles when filing complaints.

The law has also been criticized for providing a loophole for gender discrimination based on religious grounds or in relation to national security.

Isaree Aphisirirujiphat from the Isaan Network for Gender Diversity: “The state doesn’t provide protection to people of different gender identities.”

Democratizing the constitution

Alongkorn, the Maha Sarakham University associate professor, slammed Thailand’s weak consolidation of the rule of law and the country’s track record of revolving-door constitutions.

“I’m convinced that the current charter will be torn up again,” he said. “That’s why we shouldn’t put everything into the constitution, and instead work against centralization and for the devolution of power to the people.”

However, Alongkorn argued for the urgent need to amend the most controversial provision of the 2017 constitution: the fully appointed senate.

“The power of the senators is something we have to address in the amendment of the constitution because they are not elected but have a lot of influence,” Alongkorn said.

In last year’s election, the 250 senators, most of them handpicked by the military junta, ensured that General Prayuth Chan-ocha would become prime minister.

Associate Professor Alongkorn Akkasaeng of Maha Sarakham University: “The current charter, the 2017 constitution, was drafted without the participation of the people.”

The event in Khon Kaen drew inspiration from the public opinion survey that informed the drafting of the 1997 constitution, earning it the name, “People’s Constitution.” The charter is widely recognized as the country’s most democratic constitution to date.

“Apart from the 1997 constitution, there has never been any charter so much connected to the people’s sector,” said Samchai Sresunt who teaches at Thammasat University’s Puey Ungphakorn School of Development Studies. “That’s why we have to make sure that this [new] constitution comes from the people!”

Sompong, the activist from the Assembly of the Poor, stressed that the push for a new constitution cannot stop at merely proposing a new “People’s Constitution.”

“All of the civil society networks in Isaan must work together to push for this,” she said. “We must all join hands for this draft to become reality.”

Government reacts

Prime Minister General Prayuth signaled his support for constitutional amendments last week. He said the government would propose its own bill to change the charter in the next parliamentary session.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam pointed out that there is currently no legislation on constitutional referendums and the passing of such a law would take time.

Prayuth denied that the government’s plan to amend the constitution is related to the recent protests or pressure by the opposition. He voiced concerns about the appropriateness of the protesters’ demands, especially in relation to reform of the monarchy.

“I do not intend to intimidate anyone but I am concerned that some have crossed the line of propriety,” Prayuth told reporters last week according to a report by ThaiPBS World.

Calling to prosecute Prayuth

At the event in Khon Kaen, representatives of the student movement took the stance that the 2017 constitution must be abolished. They advocated to completely rewrite the charter after a new election has installed a democratic government.

Wachirawit Tessrimuang, a political science student at Khon Kaen University, said that the student protesters would not accept only minor changes to the constitution.

“As a political science student, I can’t accept a law that comes from a dictatorship,” Wachirawit said.

He argued that the new constitution must work as a bulwark against the cycle of the military staging coups and tearing apart the constitution.

The student activist added that as a coup leader Prayuth should be persecuted for his actions.

“Prayuth should be punished because he violated the Criminal Code by overthrowing the constitution,” Wachirawit said. “He must be punished so that he realizes that his actions were very wrong.”