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Thai prime minister agrees to back constitutional changes

September 5, 1997

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ Thailand’s prime minister reluctantly agreed Friday to support passage of a new, reformist constitution, giving way to pressure from the military and his own party. He said he would propose amendments later.

The constitution _ if approved, Thailand’s 16th _ would make changes that backers consider essential to cleaning up Thailand’s widespread political corruption, which has been blamed for an economic crisis that has spread throughout Southeast Asia.

Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh had run into opposition from the army and members of his own party for proposing Thursday that the proposed constitution be altered even before it goes before Parliament for approval.

By agreeing Friday to first pass the draft, then amend it later, Chavalit managed to deflect criticism while retaining a chance to head off changes to the political system that brought him to power.

Chavalit said leaders of the six parties in his coalition met Friday and ``reached a consensus ... to pass the draft constitution.″

``We will collect opinions to see how to amend the constitution later,″ he said.

Anand Panyarachun, a respected former prime minister, has called the current system the root of Thailand’s worst economic crisis in 15 years. Thailand has accepted a multibillion-dollar foreign aid package for its economy, which has suffered from currency shocks and bad loans by its lending institutions.

Among the articles Chavalit wants amended are those that would require compulsory voting in elections, allow the direct election of senators and require Cabinet ministers to resign their parliamentary seats when they join the Cabinet.

Pressure had been building on Chavalit not to tamper with the document, drafted by a 99-member assembly of former prime ministers, politicians, academics, lawyers and other professionals.

Among those pressing for no changes were army commander-in-chief Gen. Chetta Thanajaro, House speaker Wan Muhammad Noor Matha and Chavalit’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Virabongsa Ramangkura.

The draft charter is the first to emphasize protecting the rights of common people against abuses by the rich and powerful. Under current rules, Parliament is to approve or reject it without amendment.

If passed, the charter would replace one imposed by a military government in 1991. If rejected, the charter would be subject to the first referendum ever held in Thailand.