Civil rights groups are pointing to the retention of some provisions allowing for individuals to be detained for 7 days by security forces for questioning or investigation as a sign that former junta leaders are clinging to old powers but on balance, the news this week is good. It involves the lifting of restrictions on the press and public debate. The National Council for Peace and Order or junta will formally end when the new government is sworn in and its policy statement adopted.

The new Thai cabinet was given royal approval yesterday and ministers are expected to be sworn in over the next five or six days. This follows a raft of Section 44 orders by the prime minister in Tuesday which effectively brought an end to the legal apparatus of military rule in Thailand. All eyes are turning now to the new government’s policy statement with the opposition and even some members of the government pushing for changes to the 2017 constitution.

The Thai Prime Minister spoke to reporters on Tuesday and defended the use of Section 44 orders during the time of the junta or military government’s rule in Thailand. ‘Those orders did not cause problems, they were done to fix problems,’ he explained to them. There has been some criticism of the government for retaining some security powers but Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam explained that it would be a matter for the incoming government and parliament to decide upon. The focus of political debate in Thailand is now moving towards the subject of constitutional change as the opposition gears up to campaign on the issue while the government now focuses on presenting its policy statement.

The new Thai cabinet was given approval and confirmed in the Royal Gazette on Wednesday. It is expected that ministers in the new government will take their oaths in the next few days as the Palang Pracharat Party coordinates the finalisation of the new government’s policy statement or manifesto.

New cabinet has many familiar faces

The new government is as predicted last week except that the Thai prime minister retains the Defence portfolio while former Defence Minister and close associate of Prauyut Chan ocha, Prawit Wongsuwan, remains in his powerful role as Deputy Prime Minister with special responsibility for security. This new government is very much business as usual except it is coming into office through constitutional means and an election.

It is expected that the new ministers will take up their roles once they are sworn and this is expected to happen next week.

On Tuesday, orders sustaining the junta and military rule were dismantled by Section 44 orders

It has emerged that the prime minister has ordered the dismantling of the powers that underpinned the National Council for Peace and Order or junta as it will be effectively brought to an end when the new government is sworn in within a matter of days after the cabinet has now received royal approval from the Thai king.

On Tuesday also, the Prime Mister advised by his legal affairs minister, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, issued section 44 orders for the last time to rescind many of the orders of the National Council for Peace and Order or junta. 

Thai PM loses his legal magic wand

The PM will now lose his supra constitutional power to break legal deadlocks and bypass often tricky and troublesome legal due process to solve issues. The loss of this power was acknowledged as he spoke to reporters this week but he strongly defended the provision while confirming its days were at an end. ‘Those orders did not cause problems, they were done to fix problems,’ he pointed out.

Thailand now enjoys greater press freedom to criticise the government and hold it to account

Significantly, these legal changes include an end to limitations on the press which prohibited the publication of material which may have caused strife or criticism based on false information. It also prohibited press reports serving to undermine the National Council for Peace and Order. These restrictions have had a powerful influence on media coverage in Thailand over the last five years. The government has also scrapped powers that allowed it to ban news outlets, news reports or censor certain publications.

Security provisions retained by the government

However, the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed that some of the powers relating to security have been left in place to be decided upon by parliament later or the government itself. Wissanu Krea-ngam explained this yesterday to the Bangkok Post newspaper:  ‘A few orders will still exist. Organisations concerned consider them necessary because they are legal amendments to serve those organisations. Without the orders, they cannot work. The orders will remain in place until parliament turns them into acts or terminates them.’

Rights groups and opposition critical, constitutional reform emerges as the first political battle

This has led to some criticism from opposition figures and rights groups. They have however acknowledged the lifting of most of the provisions. Future Forward Party secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, while he was critical if the decision to retain some measures, pointed to the constitutional provisions which support the junta personnel moving into the new government with immunity for their past actions. ‘The junta is still supported by the Constitution’s Article 279 because it pardons them for all their actions.’ 

A demand to amend the charter or constitution is now the clarion call from all opposition parties. These calls may also have some support also from within the government with the Democratic Party pushing such a move. 

New government’s policy statement is still being finalised by the coalition partners

On Wednesday, the incoming energy minister and secretary-general of the Palang Parcaharty Party confirmed that the government’s policy document or manifesto is being examined by coalition parties and will be presented to the prime minister next week.

Senior Democrat Party figure pushes for change to the constitution to be government policy

Democrat Party secretary-general Chalermchai Sri-on has suggested that the party’s policy of pushing for a charter rewrite should be in the new government policy statement. He advocated a discussion process and thought it was necessary for the government to reach out to the opposition on the matter.

Hopeful that the PM would support the move

The Democratic Party senior figure appeared to be hopeful. He suggested that the prime minister may not oppose such a move. ‘From what I heard from media interviews, he didn’t reject calls for charter amendments and suggested that they should be brought up for discussion when the time was right and that everyone should come on board,’ he said.

Need for financial discipline and consensus highlighted by a senior new government minister

Sontirat Sontijirawong of Palang Pracharat meanwhile emphasised that the policies pursued by the government must be in line with guiding principles already laid down on financial limits and prudence on government expenditure. He also indicated that any plans for an amendment or change to the constitution or charter would involve widespread discussion and would need the emergence of a consensus on a way forward. ‘As we are a multi-party coalition government, all parties must sit down for talks and find ways to tweak our policies to achieve a harmonious blend,’ he said.