Thai junta's opponents fret over plan to grant coup plotters amnesty

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre BANGKOK (Reuters) - Under the new constitution being drawn up by a committee appointed by Thailand's junta and tasked with protecting the country from "parliamentary dictatorship", the architects of last year's military coup would enjoy immunity from prosecution. Two people on the 36-member drafting committee, who declined to be named because of the secrecy surrounding the new charter, told Reuters that the article on amnesty was passed last week with little debate. Critics of the junta say the provision is one of several proposed constitutional changes that would turn Thailand's clock back to a pre-1997 era of weak political parties dominated by the royalist and military elite. Reuters has not seen the draft constitution in its entirety, but previously reported provisions that may also be contentious include a proposal to select upper house senators from candidates picked by former politicians and military officers. The draft proposes setting up a council of so-called "wise men" to oversee junta-approved reforms and a plan for proportional representation that would make coalition governments more likely, potentially neutering the opposition. Nipit Intrasombat, a deputy leader of the conservative Democrat Party which is a rival to the Puea Thai Party ousted in the 2014 coup, said junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha may try to prolong his grip on power. "Over the past week Prayuth has sent signals that are worrying, signals that show if Thailand is not secured by the military then a general election planned for next year could be delayed," Nipit told Reuters. "NOT POWER HUNGRY" The election has already been delayed from 2015, and political opponents of the junta are concerned that it could be put off again should the military want to. Prayuth has appeared increasingly irritable with journalists who question his methods, prompting the News Broadcasting Council of Thailand (NBCT) to issue a statement warning him that he runs the risk of appearing despotic. Prayuth denies the accusations. "I am not power hungry," he said on Wednesday. "I am not a dictator as many people accuse me of being." Kiat Sittheeamorn, a senior member of the Democrat Party, said some articles in the draft constitution may be necessary to curb "abuse of power" by unnamed politicians. "We will have to see, but some of the provisions in the draft charter may be suitable checks-and-balances mechanisms." But his colleague Nipit said some politicians felt left out of the military's reform plans. The Constitution Drafting Committee, which began work in January, has held daily, closed-door, meetings at Parliament House in Bangkok, with only limited public consultation despite promises of a "people's charter". "Our views have not been accepted by the constitution-drafting committee," said Nipit. "This constitution has a mechanism that stops it from being changed for five years, and if it is poorly written there will be a political deadlock." Public unease is growing about the junta led by Prayuth. The martial law he imposed just before the coup last May was lifted late on Wednesday. Prayuth wants to replace it with a law that maintains the army's wide-ranging powers, including the ability to detain people for up to seven days without charge. AMNESTY CLAUSE RECALLS 2013 CRISIS Potentially the most explosive change in the draft charter is the amnesty covering last May's coup, because it echoes a bill proposed in 2013 by the then-ruling Puea Thai Party designed to clear anyone of offences committed during the upheaval following the 2006 military coup. Opponents of the earlier amnesty said it was aimed at allowing the then-ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to Thailand from exile without having to serve two years in jail for corruption. The Senate rejected the bill in November, 2013, but that did not stop deadly protests which dragged on for six months and triggered last year's political crisis. "This (2015) draft is designed in a fashion that will make it even worse than the constitutions promulgated some 30 years ago that enabled non-elected persons, with the support of the military, to accede," said Anuttama Amornwiwat, deputy secretary-general of the Puea Thai Party. She was referring to the 1976 constitution that effectively established a civilian dictatorship under hardline royalist Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien. Thailand has been in a state of almost perpetual tumult since 2006, when Thaksin was toppled by the army. His younger sister, Yingluck, was deposed in last year's coup. Thailand remains divided between Thaksin's supporters and opponents. On one side are mostly rural supporters of Thaksin and his family, while on the other is the Bangkok-based, mainly royalist middle class who revile Thaksin and largely support the army. Since taking power, the junta has used martial law to ban political activity, censor the media and prosecute opponents. In one of the toughest responses yet to dissent, plainclothes police and military officers visited the homes of student protesters across Thailand last week. (Editing by Mike Collett-White)