Charter writers restore community rights in draft

3Responding to feedback and criticism from a variety of civil society groups, the Constitution Drafting Committee has beefed up provisions to protect and strengthen the rights of communities and environmental safeguards in the draft constitution that will be submitted to the public in a referendum later this year.

A new constitution is part of the government’s roadmap to restore and build a more sustainable democracy. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has pledged, however, to hold national elections in 2017 whether the constitution is approved or rejected by voters. He has not specified, however, what legal mechanisms he will use to stage and facilitate elections if a permanent charter is not in place at the time.

Various groups and individuals have criticized the draft charter written by a committee led by legal scholar and former Senator Mechai Ruchupan. Political parties claim that its contents will restrict their power, and by extension the power of the electorate. The drafters have said their intention was to encourage more involvement of citizens in the political process, and in essence give citizens more power over politicians and government.

However, many civic groups, academics and activists strongly decried the absence of clauses in the draft constitution that empower and protect the rights of communities, especially when it comes to having a say in projects or actions that affect their environment, such as requiring environmental impact studies and holding public hearings before projects can proceed.

The 2007 constitution contained clauses guaranteeing those rights, and those aspects of that charter were considered progressive. The 2007 charter was the first of the more than a dozen charters Thailand has had that was approved in a public referendum.

The charter writers, after taking the criticisms from environmental scholars and advocates into account, have unveiled what they see as mechanisms to strengthen people’s roles in protecting the environment, freedom and equality.

Udom Rathamarit, a spokesman for the drafters, said the charter will equip villagers with legal safeguards when they are in conflict with authorities over natural resources.

These safeguards will be paired with legal requirements for authorities to hold public hearings, conduct Environmental Impact Assessments and Environmental and Health Impact Assessments before projects can proceed, he said.

Critics have also questioned the government’s plan to use Army territorial defense students to try and create a better public understanding of the constitution and the significance of the upcoming charter referendum.

But Army commander-in-chief General Teerachai Nakwanich said there was no attempt to mislead people and that the move was designed to encourage people to exercise their voting rights, adding the students were not going to monitor voters at polling booths.

“Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has instructed the Army to be neutral and not try to influence the voters,” a government spokesman said.