BANGKOK – A council selected by Thailand’s ruling junta started work Tuesday on reforms to close the nation’s festering political divide, a task critics dismiss as aimed at diluting the influence of billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, who led a military coup in May, has said sweeping change to rid the kingdom of corruption is necessary before new elections can take place.
“We have to… target reforms that will reduce gaps in politics and society for the people,” newly appointed National Reform Council (NRC) president Thienchay Kiranandana told the chamber.
The 250-strong NRC will recommend initiatives including a new constitution, but opponents say it is stacked with anti-Thaksin figures seeking to erase his legacy rather than craft policies to end years of political turmoil.
Its ranks include supporters of the street movement which paralysed the last elected government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as well as former senators renowned for their opposition to the telecoms magnate, who was toppled in a 2006 coup.
One of Yingluck’s lawyers leads a handful of pro-Shinawatra members on the council, which also includes civil society representatives and academics.
A committee will be appointed next month to write a new constitution.
That charter is expected to include clauses preventing those convicted of corruption from politics, a move which appears to target Thaksin who fled Thailand in 2008 to avoid jail for a graft conviction which he contends was politically motivated.
Analysts expect the new constitution will target Thaksin’s political network as well as his enduring popularity in the north by either redrawing constitutional boundaries, culling the number of lawmakers in parliament or part-appointing the lower house.
A constitutional law expert said the make-up of the NRC indicates it is primed to construct a “psuedo-democracy” that will fail to bridge Thailand’s political schism.
“The elimination of Thaksin’s influence is part of the moralistic mission and it is not difficult to incorporate into the (new) constitution,” Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang of Chulalongkorn University told AFP.
“The objective of the new system is not to recruit the most popular man to power, but a ‘virtuous’ one,” Khemthong added.
Prayut seized power from an elected government in a bloodless coup on May 22, shortly after Yingluck was dismissed as prime minister in a controversial court ruling.
Months of anti-government protests in Bangkok had crippled her administration.
From the start, the leaders of the mass demonstrations called for a reform council to “re-set” Thailand before returning to elections.
Prayut has denied the coup was choreographed with the anti-Thaksin protesters, saying he was forced to grab power after violence during the protests left nearly 30 people dead and hundreds wounded.
The takeover was the latest crisis in a country which has been riven by political divisions since Thaksin was ousted eight years ago.
The billionaire tycoon, whose parties have won every election since 2001, is reviled by much of Thailand’s Bangkok-based royalist elite who accuse him of poisoning the kingdom with corruption and big-spending populist policies.
But the Shinawatras inspire deep loyalty among voters in the poorer north of the country who laud the ex-premier for policies such as virtually free healthcare which recognized their burgeoning social and economic aspirations.