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Politics

Thai junta chief seen holding vast power in new government

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The general's powers are "just in case," this adviser says.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Military rule in Thailand has entered a new phase with the adoption of an interim constitution this week, with some fearing that Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha's junta has guaranteed itself continued authority even after a provisional government takes over.

     These concerns stem from Section 44 of 48 in the charter, granting the head of the National Council for Peace and Order (as the junta calls itself) the power to issue any order in response to threats to national "security" -- a term open to broad interpretation. These orders would not require any approval or even advance notice.

     While Prayuth cannot dismiss the prime minister or other members of the provisional cabinet, he could instruct the National Legislative Assembly to do so if they go against the junta's wishes.

     Wissanu Krea-ngam, an adviser in the drafting of the constitution, sought to dispel suspicions of the NCPO's motives. Authority under Section 44 "will not be invoked readily," he told reporters Wednesday.

     Thailand's military has a penchant for coups and a trove of know-how to go with it. Past interim constitutions were often rehashes of earlier versions, with only a few tweaks. After the 2006 coup that deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, one was rushed out in just 12 days.

     The process took two months this time around, resulting in a document nine sections longer than the previous interim constitution. The extra time went into crafting provisions relating to the NCPO, drawing on lessons learned eight years ago.

This time is different

After Thaksin's ouster, the Council for Democratic Reform (as the junta at the time styled itself) appointed retired Gen. Surayud Chulanont as interim prime minister. The CDR carried on under a different name but relegated itself to an advisory role -- a move the military later regretted. Subsequent reforms did not go as far as the men in uniform had wanted, sowing the seeds of fresh political turmoil.

     Though stung by this experience, Prayuth could hardly dispense with a civilian government this time without inviting Western condemnation. He has instead settled on having the NCPO rule alongside the provisional cabinet. In practice, the general will continue to wield virtually absolute power. Speculation holds that he may even take the prime minister's seat himself, since his retirement as army chief looms at the end of September. But given the balance of power between the junta and the provisional cabinet, the rationale for such a move has weakened.

     "The objective of the previous coup was to remove Thaksin's influence," says Narongchai Akrasanee, a former commerce minister turned NCPO adviser. "This time, we're aiming to solve the nation's various problems."

     Next month will see the establishment of the National Legislative Assembly, followed by the provisional government in September and a National Reform Council in October. These three bodies and the junta will assemble a Constitution Drafting Commission that is to do its job by July.

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