Thailand's constitution concerns escalating

The Nation, Feb 12, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- Defence Minister General Boonrawd Somtas is worried about growing disunity over calls to declare Buddhism the official religion in the new constitution. He predicted yesterday the issue could become a national controversy.

"If there is public opposition to omitting the declaration from the charter then the government could be in trouble," he said.

Pressure groups are demanding the constitution include a declaration making Buddhism the official state religion. They have threatened to vote down the draft at a referendum if it is omitted.

"They may become a force of people against the Council for National Security. It is a worry because more than 90 per cent of the country practises Buddhism,'' he said.

Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) deputy chairman Decho Sawanonont said groups unsuccessfully pushed for an official religion in the 1997 Constitution.

"The new charter will be voted on in a referendum and drafters have to listen to the voice of the people," said Decho, who helped draft the 1997 charter.

Despite widespread belief the 1997 Constitution was the best ever, it was flawed, he said.

He said the 1997 drafters were subjected to political interference and lobbied into softening provisions regulating politicians' conflicts of interest and their direct and indirect interests with the state.

"There were allegations a cocktail party was thrown at Parliament where drafters were encouraged to remove conflict-of-interest clauses and a ban on politicians having direct and indirect interests with the state.

"Finally, these clauses were voted out,'' he said, adding that politicians exploited loopholes in restrictions against holding shares in listed companies.

The 1997 charter failed to adequately regulate the management of shares held in trusts or by nominees, he said. "[Politicians] interpreted the constitution and distorted its spirit and intention. This time we must not allow such ambiguities,'' he said.

CDC spokesman Tongthong Chandrangsu was yesterday worried about an "imbalance" in the composition of charter drafters.

He said the core drafting committee had more bureaucrats.

"Political analysts believe the country will see a growing influence of bureaucrats because we now see politicians as evil. We are trying to reduce their role in the drafting of the charter,'' he said.

He noted the 1997 drafting committee was "balanced" with public, academics and politicians.

Tongthong worries the draft will encounter public opposition over the appointment or election of senators and education prerequisites for members of Parliament.

"Most charter drafters are inclined towards appointed senators and allowing constituency candidates to run without first securing undergraduate degrees," he said.