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Thai junta defends sweeping powers under interim constitution; army chief could be PM

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BANGKOK — A senior army official said Wednesday that the leader of Thailand's ruling junta is allowed to serve as interim prime minister under a new temporary constitution that gives the military government sweeping powers in the run-up to a planned 2015 election.

Thailand adopted an interim constitution on Tuesday, taking its first step toward the return of an electoral democracy after two months of military rule. But the charter's clauses allow the junta to continue to hold substantial power even after an interim Cabinet and legislature take office.

The army staged a coup on May 22 following months of deep-rooted political conflict that virtually paralyzed the machinery of Thailand's government.

The new 48-article charter will allow an interim legislature and Cabinet to begin governing the country in tandem with the military in September. It also lays out the process by which a new permanent constitution will be drafted and adopted.

Although the interim charter is supposed to pave the way for civilian rule, it gives the junta — officially called the National Council for Peace and Order — what amounts to supreme power over political developments. It also legalizes all actions the junta has taken since the coup, as well as the takeover itself.

While the charter gives the military rulers almost supreme authority over politics, Wissanu Krea-ngam, a legal adviser to the junta, said Wednesday that the military would handle only peacekeeping and security matters, even though the interim constitution clearly gives it the final word on all important issues.

"There are not any provisions in the interim charter that give the power for the NCPO to oust the Cabinet or the prime minister, as people alleged," Wissanu told reporters. "The NCPO will only exist to share the burdens of the Cabinet on security matters and peacekeeping, so that the Cabinet can run the country without getting distracted with other problems that could arise."

PHOTO: Secretary-General of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) Gen. Paiboon Koomchaya, who also in charge of legal and justice affairs, speaks during a news conference at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Thailand adopted a temporary constitution on Tuesday, taking its first step toward the slow return of electoral democracy after two months of military rule. But the charter's clauses allow the ruling junta to continue to hold substantial power even after an interim Cabinet and legislature take office. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)
Secretary-General of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) Gen. Paiboon Koomchaya, who also in charge of legal and justice affairs, speaks during a news conference at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Thailand adopted a temporary constitution on Tuesday, taking its first step toward the slow return of electoral democracy after two months of military rule. But the charter's clauses allow the ruling junta to continue to hold substantial power even after an interim Cabinet and legislature take office. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)

According to deputy army commander Gen. Paiboon Kumchaya, junta leader and army commander-in-chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha can serve as interim prime minister under the new rules.

"Personally, I don't see that Gen. Prayuth lacks any qualifications. At this period, it's like he's already working as the prime minister," Paiboon said, adding that the junta had not discussed the matter at its meetings. "In the past few months, Gen. Prayuth has been doing the job thoroughly, chairing every meeting by himself and running every ministry smoothly."

Wissanu said that even though the constitution allows Prayuth to become prime minister, it will be up to the National Legislative Assembly to choose the interim premier.

The junta previously said the interim prime minister and Cabinet would continue to work until a general election is held by October 2015.

The new charter's Article 44 gives Prayuth, as junta chief, the power "to order, suspend or do any actions he sees necessary for the benefits of the reforms, the unity and reconciliation of people in the country, or to prevent, suspend or suppress any actions that will destroy the peace and order, the national security and monarchy, the country's economy or the country's governance, no matter if such actions are taking place in or outside the kingdom." It declares that such actions are automatically legal.

The constitution's clauses have raised concerns among critics about the enormous powers granted to the junta chief.

"This gives the power for the NCPO to commit any actions that might contradict or even go beyond the power given under this constitution," said Ekachai Chainuvati, a law lecturer at Bangkok's Siam University. "It states explicitly that he can perform any actions, such as reshuffling civil servants, drafting any laws or even punishing people judicially."

Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, which is normally aligned with the establishment and the military, called for the junta leader to quickly clarify how he will exercise the power under the constitution's Article 44, in order to "prevent conflict or chaos that could arise."

"While I believe the society can accept the existence of the special powers in case there is going to be any chaos, it is not clear how necessary it is to extend the special authority to include legislative and judicial powers, or to claim that the power will be used for reforms or reconciliation," Abhisit, a former prime minister, wrote in a Facebook post.

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