BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's coup-installed military regime is
writing a new constitution which appears to extend its dominating
policies by ensuring an unelected prime minister can rule, boosted by
a Senate stacked with pro-junta appointees.

Only then, after popular anti-coup politicians and parties are
rendered weaker, will nationwide Parliamentary elections be allowed in
2017 or 2018 -- or perhaps later.

Not everyone is thrilled.

"The draft charter has already been branded by opponents of the
military government as a 'dictator's charter' or the constitution that
'cheats and steals the power of the people'," the Bangkok Post said in
a February 12 editorial.

The finalized constitution may allow a National Strategic Reform and
Reconciliation Committee --nicknamed "a crisis panel" -- to seize all
executive and legislative power from the government and Parliament.

"The committee will get involved only after the country is at a dead
end," Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon warned last year.

"We don't want a coup to take place again," said Prawit who
participated in a 2014 putsch which created the junta.

The committee may be reconfigured because critics described it as a
sinister, lurking "state within a state" including army, air force and
navy chiefs.

The junta is orchestrating this Buddhist-majority country's 20th
constitution after previous charters were trashed every time the
military seized power or other problems arose.

Each constitution survived an average of four years after the first
one was written when the absolute monarchy was abolished by a coup in

Many people are afraid to directly criticize the current draft
constitution because of the regime's frequently shifting punishments
against free speech enforced by coercive re-education camps, threats
to seize assets, and military trials for civilian dissidents who
express themselves.

"I confirm that we will have an election in the year 2017, that's for
sure," Prawit recently told reporters, indicating that even if the
constitution is unpopular, elections will still be held.

A previous draft was rejected in September.

Fresh squabbling has emerged over the newest draft, raising fears that
elections may be delayed until 2018 or indefinitely -- perhaps as part
of a plot by the junta, according to some critics.

When Prayuth Chan-ocha was the army's chief, he led the May 2014 coup
and repeatedly promised elections in 2015 and 2016.

"Do you want to have elections tomorrow? What will you do if bad
people are elected?" a grouchy Prime Minister Prayuth said on February
2, while throwing a hand-sized display object at Thai journalists
during one of his frequent public tantrums which in the past included
angrily tossing a banana at them.

"Go ahead and criticize me. As if I care. You just wait and see. If
the country ends up in ruins, don't blame me," Prayuth grumbled at
"stupid" reporters who asked about the constitution and other issues.

"If you don't want changes, we all should prepare to die. We will have
to depart from this world, from the international community. No one
would want to have a relationship with Thailand if we continue to be
mired in conflict," he said before repeatedly slamming his hand on his

"Don't you know we are in for starvation?"

The junta's Constitution Drafting Committee is chaired by Meechai
Ruchupan, 77, who authored a 1991 constitution enabling an unelected
general to become prime minister.

Under the new constitution, an unelected "outsider" could again become
prime minister, endorsed by Parliament if a "crisis" arises.

Critics fear a pro-junta outsider will be boosted to become premier --
perhaps Prayuth extending his term -- though he denied wanting to stay

Parliament would have two houses, but its Senate may include a
majority of pro-junta appointees.

"The junta is quite clear. Its powers will end, more or less, not with
the next elected government, but only four years, perhaps more, after
the latter had started its work," said Michael H. Nelson, a Faculty of
Law research fellow at Bangkok's prestigious Thammasat University.

"The military's [current] direct rule of three years-plus will thereby
be complemented by at least four years of indirect military rule,"
Nelson wrote in notes for his presentation at the German Embassy in
Bangkok on February 15.

Additionally, the Constitutional Court will continue to decide the
fate of politicians who fall foul of the charter's laws or if a
"crisis" remains unresolved.

During the past decade, that Constitutional Court ruled against
several elected politicians, ending their political careers.

Similarly, the National Anti-Corruption Commission will continue its
ability to ban guilty politicians from power.

Critics say Thailand's specialized courts mesh with the new
constitution's restrictions, severely limiting politicians' power.

The regime meanwhile broadcast a twice-daily TV show titled, "Unboxing
the New Constitution" from February 3-15.

It explained the draft to convince viewers to vote "yes" for the
charter in a nationwide referendum tentatively scheduled for July 31
or in August.

After the referendum, the junta-appointed National Legislative
Assembly will deliberate 10 "organic laws" on how to stage an election
and procedures for the Constitutional Court and National
Anti-Corruption Commission.

The draft charter meets "international standards with a Thai identity
that can be used appropriately to solve past problems," said junta
spokesman Col. Piyapong Klinphan.

The constitution's supporters insist it will stop corrupt politicians
from reviving the previous elected government's "dictatorship of the
majority" which allegedly looted this Southeast Asian nation's
investments and resources.

Coup supporters point to the wealthy and manipulative Shinawatra clan
who they despise for several reasons, including because that family's
"new money" businesses competed with the junta's "old money" base.

During the 21st century the tech-savvy, populist family produced three
prime ministers -- Thaksin Shinawatra, his younger sister Yingluck and
their brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat -- backed by enthusiastic

Thaksin is now an international fugitive dodging a two-year jail
sentence for corruption committed during his 2001-06 tenure.

Yingluck, currently barred from running for office, is free on
$860,000 bail and forbidden to leave Thailand during her trial at the
Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Political Office Holders for
alleged "negligence" while overseeing her administration's rice crop

On February 12, she held her first news conference since the 2014
coup, and reiterated her innocence.

The constitution's lengthy list of 270 sections is to prevent the
Shinawatra family and their allies from being elected again, and limit
the power of big political parties, contrary to a popular 1997
constitution which the junta cancelled after a 2006 coup.

"The drafting process has been overshadowed, throughout, by the
compelling concern to take this opportunity to finally thwart the
decade-plus influence of the Shinawatra family," said Titipol
Phakdeewanich, dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon
Ratchathani University.

"It is more than likely that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's
military junta will remain essentially in power, even if we have
elections in 2017, albeit with a new prime minister," Titipol said on
February 14 in an e-mail interview.

If a widespread "no" vote damages the public referendum, the draft may
be tweaked.

"Some kind of 'settlement' is needed between the 'conservatives' and
the rural and urban working class and lower middle class voters whom
Thaksin really brought into the political system," said a scholar of
Southeast Asia who asked not to be identified because of his research.

"My sense is that even the conservatives realize that elections are
needed soon, because the military is too backward, hopeless at
government and an embarrassment," the scholar said in an e-mail
interview on February 12.

Prayuth staged his 2014 coup after weeks of political street clashes
killed dozens of people.

The street confrontations were mostly sparked by anti-democracy
militants who opposed the public's right to vote, and were against
Yingluck and other elected politicians because their own elitist
leaders were less popular at the polls.

Society was so polarized that families often bickered at dinner tables
because relatives supported opposing sides.

After his coup, Prayuth leveraged himself to become prime minister and
granted his junta blanket amnesty from prosecution.

He now rules under his interim constitution armed with Section 44's
absolute power over his skeletal government's legislative, executive
and judicial branches.

Weary of the spiraling political chaos and worried about Thailand's
dreary economy, many Thais are biding their time, hoping to
fast-forward to the next election amid hopes this country can
eventually enjoy basic human rights and repair its international
pariah image.

"I fear we are headed towards the political system of the People's
Republic of China," said former academic Burin Kantabutra on February
14 in an e-mail interview.

"I think that post-charter, post-election Thai politics will be a
train wreck," Burin said.

Thaksin's vast number of supporters, known as Red Shirts, are expected
to oppose the constitution.

"The Red Shirts will vote to reject this charter in the referendum,"
Red Shirt chairman Jatuporn Prompan told reporters on February 11.

American singer Madonna meanwhile was cheered by democracy supporters
during her Bangkok concert on February 9 when -- without naming
Thailand -- she declared on stage to the mostly Thai audience:

"When those fascist dictators posing as righteous men come for you,
with their big leather boots to shut you up, you'd better be prepared
to fight for what you believe in."