BANGKOK — Thailand's king signed the country's new military-backed constitution on Thursday, approving a charter that could see the ruling junta allow fresh elections but limit the authority of the politicians who eventually take office.
King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun endorsed the document in an elaborate ceremony at the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall attended by senior members of the country's military government as well as foreign diplomats. It becomes the nation's 20th constitution since the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932.
The military junta, which seized control of the country in a coup nearly three years ago, has said the promulgation of the constitution will clear the way for new elections no later than November 2018, though it has repeatedly delayed previous promised poll dates.
In a televised speech Thursday night, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said the government's timetable did not allow for an exact date for the elections to be set because of the need to pass several laws to allow polling to be held.
"Once the elections are held and the new government is formed, this government will hand over its duties to the new government and will cease its duties," he said.
An earlier version of the new charter was approved by voters in a public referendum last year, though campaigns against the document were outlawed by the junta, which still restricts freedom of speech and assembly in the country. The military government says the document is needed to move the country past more than a decade of political unrest and social division that been punctuated by two coups and multiple rounds of deadly street protests.
Critics say the constitution — drafted by a junta-appointed panel — is undemocratic, will allow the military to keep its grip on power even after elections, and will ultimately deepen the country's divisions. They say the charter limits the power of voters by empowering unelected bodies, creating a fully appointed senate that includes military commanders, and neutering the authority of elected officials.
"In addition to the military, the judiciary and other accountability-promoting agencies are less connected and accountable to the electorate because the upper chamber is now a military domain, no longer elected by the people," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University.
He said Thursday's "major" ceremony meant the constitution "has a better chance of staying around longer than its predecessors, and therefore democratic aspirations in the charter will have to be expressed via amendments rather than a complete rewrite."
The draft signed Thursday was modified after last year's referendum to give Vajiralongkorn more powers. The signing ceremony took place on Chakri Day, an annual holiday marking the establishment of the Chakri dynasty. Vajiralongkorn is the 10th king in the dynasty, having inherited the throne from his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died in October.
The new constitution will do little to reverse human rights problems that arose under military rule, London-based human rights group Amnesty International said.
"Thailand's military government retains its carte blanche authority to rule by diktat until elections are held, and future governments will have free rein to restrict human rights on various vaguely defined grounds," said Champa Patel, the group's director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. "The new constitution also keeps in place the full gamut of orders and decrees imposed by the military government since the 2014 coup, which have facilitated widespread human rights violations."
Kaweewit Kaewjinda, The Associated Press