March 5, 2015 / 9:09 PM / in 3 years

Law unto itself: Thai junta fuels doubt by churning out legislation

BANGKOK (Reuters) - It usually meets just twice a week, and many of its 220 members have little or no experience of making laws. But that hasn’t slowed down Thailand’s interim parliament, which was installed by the military junta that seized power last May.

In the past five months, with minimal public consultation, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) has passed more than 60 laws governing everything from debt-collection to surrogate parenting and the use of unmanned drones.

Almost 100 more laws are up for consideration, including major legislation to protect intellectual copyright and “digitize” Thailand’s ailing post-coup economy.

The NLA’s feverish lawmaking, however, is causing increasing disquiet about erosion of freedoms.

Some laws seem designed to consolidate the military’s grip on power before a general election scheduled for next year, say civic groups, while others, such as a law that restricts public demonstrations and allows the military to detain civilians without charge, they say are so ill-conceived they might need to be undone by future governments.

Information and Communications Technology Minister Pornchai Rujiprapa said critics were worried unduly.

The NLA’s members were handpicked by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief whose coup toppled Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government. More than 100 members are former or serving soldiers.

Members include academics, ex-senators and business people. Some had law-making experience, but not all, said activist Srisuwan Janya, who is also head of the Association of Organisations Protecting the Thai Constitution.

“They should not draft laws without any real understanding of the law. The public demonstration bill, for example, if it is not well-written, will affect people’s right to hold rallies,” Srisuwan told Reuters.

FOREIGN INVESTORS WORRIED

The NLA’s apparent reluctance to consult outside experts could also erode the junta’s core support among Bangkok’s middle class and business elite, analysts say.

“There will be increasing conflict over these laws including disquiet from those who support the military government,” Worajet Pakeerat, a lecturer at Thammasart University’s Faculty of Law, told Reuters.

The lack of consultation also worries foreign investors.

“We’re concerned in particular for laws regarding online privacy, which are troubling for companies doing business in Thailand,” said a member of the American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand who declined to be identified named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The NLA’s overdrive is partly explained by the need to clear a legislative backlog from the last months of Yingluck’s government, which was crippled by protests.

But rights groups say some laws erode basic rights. For example, they say, a series of bills aimed at creating a “digital economy” would allow state spying without a court order.

“If they were to pass, what you would have is unfettered ability by the government to violate people’s privacy,” said Sam Zarifi, Asia Director for the International Commission of Jurists.

Last month, the NLA voted overwhelmingly for a bill restricting political protests. A week before that, it passed a law that could allow the military to detain civilians for up to 84 days without charge.

The NLA has passed 61 laws since it was established in September, said Peerasak Porchit, the assembly’s vice president.

“We’re getting quantity but not quality and the laws do not meet the needs of the public,” Samart Kaewmeechai, a member of Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party, told Reuters.

And the NLA makes no secret of where it gets its orders.

“Most laws we have amended are because the NCPO suggested it,” said Peerasak, referring to Prayuth’s junta, the National Council for Peace and Order.

Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Editing by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Nick Macfie

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