GOVERNMENT Overview: Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected bicameral legislature. After years of military-controlled governments, Thailand has become a multiparty political system, albeit one often dependent on the formation of coalitions of numerous parties in order to form a government. The current administration is the first ever single-party, democratically elected government in Thailand’s history. King Bhumibol, who has reigned since 1946, exerts a strong informal influence in politics but has never used his constitutional power to veto legislation or dissolve the legislature. The current constitution, the sixteenth since 1932, was approved by the National Assembly on September 27, 1997, and signed by the king and enacted on October 11, 1997. It is organized into 12 chapters and 313 sections, with an additional 23 sections covering the transition leading to the implementation of the constitution.
Executive Branch: The constitutional monarch and head of state, since June 9, 1946, is King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty). The constitution recognizes the king as a Buddhist but also as “upholder of religions.” The Privy Council is an 18-member constitutional body that advises the king on matters of legislation, government affairs, clemency, awards, and other matters requiring the king’s signature. The Privy Council, whose members are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the king, also recommends the name of a suitable person to hold the position of regent when the king is absent from Thailand or unable to perform his duties. Executive power is conducted through the Council of Ministers—the cabinet—which is led by the head of government, Prime Minister Police Lieutenant Colonel Thaksin Chinnawat (since February 9, 2001). Thaksin is assisted by one military deputy prime minister and five civilian deputy prime ministers. In 2005 there were 19 cabinet-level ministries and one minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Legislative Branch: Thailand has a bicameral legislature called the National Assembly (Rathasapha), which consists of two chambers. The Senate (Wuthisapha) has 200 members who are popularly elected from single-seat constituencies on a nonpartisan basis for six-year terms; the number of Senate seats is determined proportionally by province. The House of Representatives (Sapha Phuthaen Ratsadon) has 438 members elected by popular vote for four-year terms. In the House, 100 seats are based on proportional representation by province and 400 on multiseat constituencies. As of 2005, all 100 proportional seats and 338 of the multiseat constituencies had been filled. The president of the House serves concurrently as president of the National Assembly, and the president of the Senate serves as vice president of the National Assembly. In certain instances, such as the appointment of a regent, declarations by a regent, amendment of the Palace Law on Succession, approval of succession to the throne, reconsideration of bills or organic law bills, constitutional amendments, a declaration of war, or approval of treaties, joint sessions of the National Assembly are held. The most recent Senate elections were held between March and July 2000; the next are scheduled for March 2006. The most recent House elections were held on February 6, 2005, and will next be held in February 2009.
Judicial Branch: Thailand has a three-level court system collectively known as the Courts of Justice. At the top is the Supreme Court of Justice. Below it are the Court of Appeal and, at the third level, the Courts of First Instance. The independent Constitutional Court interprets the constitution. The National Assembly can refer executive decrees to the Constitutional Court for review. Supreme Court of Justice and Constitutional Court justices are subject to Senate approval. Other judges are members of the career civil service and are not subject to parliamentary review. Separate administrative courts adjudicate disputes involving state agencies, state enterprises, and local government organizations, or between state officials and private individuals, and there are administrative appellate and supreme administrative courts at higher levels. A separate Military Court deals with military personnel and persons arrested during periods of martial law. Islamic sharia courts hear civil cases involving members of the Muslim minority.
Administrative Divisions: Thailand has 76 provinces (changwat), including Bangkok Municipality. The provinces are divided into 795 districts (amphoe), 81 subdistricts (kingamphoe), 7,255 rural administrative subdistricts (tambon), and 69,866 villages (muban).
Provincial and Local Government: Local government is based on the principles of decentralization and self-government when certain legal conditions are met. The constitution allows for elected local assemblies and elected or appointed local administrative committees for four-year terms. Central government officials may not serve as local officials. Bangkok is a provincial-level entity with an elected governor and the legislative Metropolitan Administration Council. Supervision of provincial and local government takes place through the Department of Local Administration of the Ministry of Interior.
Judicial and Legal System: The Thai legal system is based on an amalgam of traditional and modern laws and customs, including Islamic law, where applicable. Most of the modern legal system is based on criminal, civil, and commercial codes adopted from the British and other European legal systems, along with borrowings from India, China, Japan, and the United States. Traditional civil rights are protected by the constitution. There is no trial by jury in Thailand. A single judge decides trials for misdemeanors; two or more judges are required for more serious cases. The constitution provides for the presumption of innocence, and criminal detainees are guaranteed access to legal counsel; however, it has been claimed that local police often ignore this procedure and conduct interrogations of suspects without providing access to an attorney. Regulations outlined in the Criminal Code require public prosecutors to rely exclusively on the recommendations of the police when determining whether to bring a case forward for criminal prosecution. Police are required to bring criminal cases to prosecutors for the filing of court charges within 48 hours of arrest. Extensions of up to three days are permitted, and police, with court permission, may hold suspects for up to 82 days for serious offenses while investigations are being conducted.
Electoral System: There are no elections for the heads of state and government. The monarchy is hereditary and based on the Palace Law of Succession enacted in 1924, which allows the king to appoint his heir. If he has failed to do so, the Privy Council nominates an heir for National Assembly consideration. The heir suggested by the Privy Council may be a prince or princess. The prime minister is selected from among the members of the House of Representatives following elections. Officially, the king appoints the prime minister, who is normally the leader of the party that has an outright majority or organizes a majority coalition in the House of Representatives. The Senate also is elected by popular vote for non-party candidates. The election process is viewed as generally free and fair, but the most recent House elections (February 6, 2005) were marred by widespread vote buying and the killing of political canvassers during the campaign. Elections are supervised by an independent government agency, the Election Commission. Voters must be 18 years of age as of January 1 of the year of the election, must be citizens, and, if naturalized, must have been in such status for at least five years. The constitution prohibits Buddhist priests, monks, novices, and clergy from voting.
Politics and Political Parties: Following the February 6, 2005, elections, the majority party in the House of Representatives is the Phak Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai Party), with 375 seats (60.7 percent). The Phak Prachathipat (Democratic Party) holds 96 seats (18.3 percent); the Phak Chat Thai (Thai Nation Party), 27 seats (11.4 percent); and the Phak Mahachon (Great People’s Party), 2 seats (8.3 percent). Other parties receiving small numbers of votes in the February 6, 2005, elections did not win seats in the House.
Mass Media: The Thai media are generally free but act with restraint because of fear of lawsuits and, from time to time, government censorship. There are 15 major Thai-language daily newspapers, 4 major English-language dailies, and 4 major Chinese-language dailies. Thailand also has 204 AM radio stations, 334 FM radio stations, 6 shortwave stations, and 5 television broadcast stations.
Foreign Relations: In 2005 Thailand maintained diplomatic relations with 131 nations plus the European Union and the Holy See. Thailand is a charter member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Relations occasionally have been strained with Burma, Cambodia, and Malaysia over border, insurgency, and refugee issues. Relations with Cambodia were severely strained in 2003 when a Thai actress allegedly claimed that the temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia belonged to Thailand. Rioters attacked the Thai embassy and Thai businesses in Phnom Penh, and Bangkok temporarily downgraded relations and closed the border. Thailand’s foreign policy includes emphasis on a close and longstanding security relationship with the United States.
Membership in International Organizations: Thailand belongs to the following international organizations: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Asia-Pacific Telecommunity, Asian Development Bank, Asian Institute of Technology, Asian-Pacific Postal Training Centre, Asian Reinsurance Corporation, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the ASEAN Regional Forum, Bank for International Settlements, Colombo Plan, Committee for Coordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas, Group of 77, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Chamber of Commerce, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Court, International Criminal Police Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Hydrographic Organization, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Migration, International Organization for Standardization, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, Mekong River Commission, Network of Aquaculture Centres in Asia-Pacific, Nonaligned Movement, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (partner), Organization of American States (observer), Organization of the Islamic Conference (observer), Permanent Court of Arbitration, Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Secretariat, World Confederation of Labor, World Customs Organization, World Federation of Trade Unions, World Tourism Organization, and World Trade Organization. Within the United Nations (UN) system, Thailand is a member of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific; Food and Agriculture Organization; International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; International Civil Aviation Organization; International Development Association; International Finance Corporation; International Fund for Agricultural Development; International Labour Organization; International Maritime Organization; International Monetary Fund; International Telecommunication Union; Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency; UN Children’s Fund; UN Conference on Trade and Development; UN Development Fund for Women; UN Development Programme; UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization; UN Environment Programme; UN High Commissioner for Refugees; UN Industrial Development Organization; UN Office on Drugs and Crime; UN Population Fund; UN Regional Center for East Asia and the Pacific; Universal Postal Union; World Health Organization; World Intellectual Property Organization; and World Meteorological Organization.
Major International Treaties: Thailand is a signatory to the Biological Weapons Convention; Chemical Weapons Convention; Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare; Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water; and Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. Thailand also is a party to the Biodiversity, Climate Change, Climate Change-Kyoto Protocol, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Waste, Marine Life Conservation, Ozone Layer Protection, Tropical Timber 83, Tropical Timber 94, and Wetlands environmental agreements. It has signed but not ratified the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty.