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Thailand: New Constitution with More Rights?

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Thailand’s new draft constitution is unacceptable to human rights groups in the country. While the draft considers Thailand’s international obligations as a means to protect human rights, it makes amendments that firmly contradict the aforementioned efforts.
Despite the continued demonstrations against the Council for National Security (CNS) by the protestors in Thailand that highlight the government’s growing unpopularity, the Thai constitution remains the most burning issue.

The draft constitution, written by the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA), was released to the public in May 2007. Civil society organisations have been engaging the CDA since the body was formed after the coup d’etat for the rights of the people to be guaranteed. Others have decided not to participate in the process, which is seen as illegitimate and the selection process was believed to lack transparency.

In October last year, a network of Thai NGOs was set up following the Thai Social Forum to draft the “Peoples Constitution;” the outcome was submitted to the Constitution Drafting Assembly in early March 2007. Some of the major proposals include a guarantee to the protection of everyone living in Thailand including migrant workers and refugees, strengthening the role of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), guaranteeing environmental rights, and the deletion of the clause that members of parliament need to have a bachelor’s degree.

From a human rights perspective, when comparing the current draft to the 1997 constitution, the draft constitution under article four stresses the protection of human rights, freedom and human dignity according to the “international obligations that Thailand is a party to.” The previous constitution did not officially recognise Thailand’s international obligations.

However, the draft constitution also contains many short comings. Instead of strengthening the NHRC, the new constitution provides that the number of the commissioners be reduce from eleven to seven. This call was expected by human rights groups as it was in line with an earlier call in March 2007 by the CDA to impose limitations on the NHRC by merging it with the office of the Ombudsman.

Instead of focusing the budget to improve education and other social welfare programmes to promote economic, social, and cultural rights, the draft constitution has a specific clause stating that the government has the obligation to maintain updated artillery, weapons, and warfare technology – clearly reflecting influence of the military government.

On the issue of civil liberty, article 32 of the draft also angers human rights defenders as it expands police powers to search without a warrant.1 Many groups have stated that this article will challenge individual rights and cases of impunity will be prevalent if this clause is not scrapped.

Despite the call to take out the education requirements for the members of parliament that is granted in the draft constitution, it still requires that cabinet posts need to have a bachelor’s degree as a pre-requisite, thereby making such posts inaccessible for 80% of the Thai population. Furthermore, the senate acting as the legislative body will be appointed by a specific committee rather than being elected. Many worry that this could lead to nepotism and cronyism among the selection committee.

It remains necessary for human rights organisations to continue monitoring the situation as the CDA is expected to incorporate the final changes among themselves for the referendum at the end of this year. 

1 Achara Ashayagahcat. Rights gone wrong. Bangkok Post 13 June 2007