Following a cabinet decision to set up a committee to study approaches to constitutional amendment, a civil society network campaigning for a new constitution has voiced concerns about the government’s policy, noting that it remains unclear how the amendments will be made.
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin (front) with several members of the new cabinet. (Photo from the Thai Government website)
The new cabinet decided on Wednesday (13 September) to form a committee to study constitutional amendment referendum approaches. The committee is to be headed by Phumtham Wechayachai, Pheu Thai’s deputy leader who now serves as both Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce.
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said that the cabinet intends to discuss how the constitution will be amended and a referendum conducted in parliament so that every sector can participate in the process.
Chai Wacharong, spokesperson for the Office of the Prime Minister, said that the cabinet wants to make the Constitution more democratic, and that it will be working in line with the Constitutional Court’s ruling that a referendum must first be conducted before the amendment process can begin. He said that the public will be asked what they wanted to include in the referendum, but the cabinet will not amend any section of the Constitution that is related to the monarchy.
Although Chai said that the cabinet will take iLaw’s proposal into consideration, he said it wants to wait for other groups’ input before making decisions.
Representatives of the People’s Constitution Drafting Group went to the ECT office yesterday (14 September) to follow up on their petition. (Photo from iLaw)
The People’s Constitution Drafting Group issued a statement on Wednesday (13 September) raising concerns that the new government has not made it clear how it will be amending the constitution, adding that its policy statement on constitutional amendments goes against the policy previously announced by the Pheu Thai Party, which said that a new “people’s constitution” will be drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly and approved in a referendum.
The group said that, if the government intends to write a new constitution that is democratic, modern, and accepted by all, it should allow every citizen to participate in the process. It should not be setting conditions that would limit changes to the constitution, a decision which should be left to the people, unlike the drafting process for the 2017 Constitution, which was left to a small group, resulting in political crisis and conflict.
The group called on the government to rethink its policy on constitutional amendments and to follow the proposal made by civil groups to have the entire constitution be redrafted by an elected Constituent Assembly, an approach supported by the 14 million voters who show their support through the 14 May general election. The newly formed committee should also consider using the referendum question the network proposed in a petition signed by over 200,000 voters, as it is will ensure that the Constituent Assembly will be elected, guaranteeing that the process of drafting the new constitution will be legitimate.
On 30 August, the network submitted their petition to the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT). The petition obtained over 200,000 signatures on paper in the space of just 3 days, after the network was told by the ECT that online signatures would not be accepted, rendering over 40,000 signatures previously collected void. iLaw said yesterday (13 September) that it has been told by the ECT that the signatures will be processed by next week. Representatives of the network also went to the ECT office yesterday (14 September) to follow up on the petition.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn from the Constitution Advocacy Alliance (CALL) said that the ECT is required to process the signatures within 30 days, and half of that time has now lapsed. She said that the network expects the ECT to take less than 30 days to process the signatures, since the network and other volunteers were able to collect the signatures within 3 days and in the space of 4 days were able to input the information into spreadsheets, while the ECT is a government agency supported by government budget.
Theerat Panichudompat from the Committee Campaigning for a People’s Constitution (CCPC) said that the cabinet has the final say in whether to approve the petition. He noted that the Pheu Thai Party previously campaigned that the Constituent Assembly would be elected, but this was not made clear in the government’s policy statement.
Theerat said that the cabinet does not need to wait for the ECT to process the signatures to use the referendum question the network proposed if it doesn’t have its own question. He added that the public might not necessarily be happy with the question the cabinet comes up with, so the cabinet might avoid this issue by using the question that is already backed by the public.
Meanwhile, Move Forward Party MP Parit Wacharasindhu said that a committee was previously formed during the last parliament’s term to study approaches to constitutional amendments. The result of the study was that a new constitution should be drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly. A constitutional amendment bill was then submitted to parliament, but was dismissed in its third reading by the Senate and some government MPs who claimed that the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the matter means that a referendum must be conducted on whether the Constitution should be amended before any amendment can be proposed to parliament. A subsequent motion for a referendum to be conducted was approved by the House of Representatives, including by MPs from parties now in the government coalition, but was later dismissed by the Senate.
Parit said that forming a new committee to study approaches to constitutional amendments would not add to what has already been reported by the last committee. He is concerned that the government could be trying to stall for time and the new committee could be used to justify going against principles previously agreed upon by the last parliament.
He suggested that the government needs to set a time limit for the study conducted by the new committee. It must also explain the scope of the study to ensure that the committee will only be looking at the approaches to constitutional amendments, and not to go against the core principles that the constitution needs to be rewritten by an elected Constituent Assembly.
After a senator said that the committee should not include anyone who “has different ideas,” Parit also raised concerns that the committee would be used to allow those in power to disrupt the constitutional amendment process. He suggested that the government should make clear who will be included in the committee and how it will be working to ensure that opinions taken into account include every group in society.
Parit said that the Move Forward Party believes that the easiest way out for the government would be to pass a resolution for a referendum to be held asking whether a new constitution should be drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly. The party believes that the people’s blessing would ensure a democratic constitution as an end result.