Thai Parliament Meets for First Time Since Coup

Thai soldiers stand guard outside Government House building in Bangkok.

Thailand's military-appointed parliament has met for the first time after last month's coup as the 242 members took the oath of office, but it has little power to check the hand-picked government.

Their first task was to vote on who should be president, or speaker, of the National Legislative Assembly, which may be the only significant decision they make.

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 administration.

That power lies with the junta that toppled twice-elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup on September 19.

The generals enshrined their role through their constitution, establishing themselves as a Council for National Security that has ultimate authority in government.

The junta has promised to hold elections in October 2007, but a government minister last week said that the polls would likely be delayed until December next year.

The assembly's first session was presided over by an 88-year-old lawyer and long-time parliamentarian, Nanthaka Suprapatanan. Chosen because she is the oldest person in the body, she will lead the first meeting until a speaker is selected.

Many of the MPs have close links to former prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda, the top adviser to Thailand's revered king, who is believed to have been a key player in orchestrating the military takeover.

The two frontrunners for speaker of the assembly also have close ties to Prem.

Meechai Ruchupan, the speaker of the last senate, was a minister in Prem's government during the 1980s. Prasong Soonsiri, a top security official, headed the intelligence agency during Prem's administration.

Meechai, 68, is widely seen as a front man for the junta, and has acted as a legal consultant for the coup leaders since the first hours of the takeover.

The profile of both men, but particularly Meechai, has raised new concerns about how widely the junta plans to extend its powers.

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

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

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.

They 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 while appointing a former army chief as prime minister.

They have ruled the country under martial law since the takeover, and say they will lift in the near future for fear of an anti-coup backlash by Thaksin supporters.

Source: AFP

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