Wed, Oct 25, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Thai parliament elects speaker

LITTLE SURPRISE The body of legislators picked Meechai Ruchupan, an insider and front man for the generals that toppled the former prime minister

AFP , BANGKOK

Protesters gather across the street from the parliament building yesterday in Bangkok. The group was protesting the recent coup.

PHOTO: AP

Thailand's military-appointed parliament yesterday elected the ruling junta's top legal adviser as its speaker.

Meechai Ruchupan won 70 percent of the vote held during the first session of the 242-seat National Legislative Assembly, which has little power to check the hand-picked government.

He has twice served as speaker of the senate and is widely seen as a front man for the leaders of the bloodless coup that ousted twice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra last month.

Considered Thailand's foremost legal expert, 68-year-old Meechai has acted as one of the junta's top advisers since the early hours of the putsch on Sept. 19.

He also has close ties with Prem Tinsulanonda. The top adviser to Thailand's revered king, Prem is believed to have played a central role in organizing the coup.

The choice of speaker came as little surprise in a chamber composed of members that were all appointed by the military, and many of whom have links to Prem. It highlights how little independence the assembly is allowed.

"It's clear that the junta was behind the selection. The junta turned deaf ears to the voices of people who oppose Meechai as the assembly's new president, and this will turn people against junta," said Pibhop Dongchai of the Campaign for Popular Democracy pressure group.

"Meechai has a record of service in every government, especially governments formed by dictators," he added.

The Campaign for Popular Democracy was formed by many of the leaders of protests held earlier this year aimed at ousting Thaksin over corruption allegations.

"This is all about stabilizing their power with their own people, and not getting any opposition," Michael Nelson, a researcher at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said of the parliament.

"This is not supposed to be an independent body representing the people at large," he said.

Under a Constitution imposed by the military three weeks ago, the assembly will act as a single-chamber parliament for a year but will have no powers to vote on government matters.

It can debate and question government policies, but not censure or impeach anyone in the generals' administration.

That power lies with the junta, whose role was enshrined in their Constitution. This established them as a Council for National Security that has ultimate authority in government.

The junta has promised to hold elections next October, but a government minister last week said that the poll would likely be delayed until December next year.

The coup leaders said they seized power to restore democracy, which they said was undermined by widespread corruption during Thaksin's five years in office.

As well as their election promise, the generals have pledged to draft a new constitution, but most of their actions so far have served to solidify their power and give them broad influence in government.

Meechai is also heading the new council tasked with beginning the constitution-drafting process.

The generals have tossed out Thailand's 1997 Constitution -- widely hailed as the most democratic charter this country has ever known -- and imposed restrictions on the media and political parties.

They have ruled the country under martial law since the take-over, and have set no date for lifting it because they fear an anti-coup backlash raised by Thaksin supporters.

The prime minister they appointed, Surayud Chulanont, is a former military chief.

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