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A woman walks past a portrait of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun at a department store in central Bangkok, Thailand January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha


BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's junta chief said on Tuesday he would begin amending the country's draft constitution after the new king requested changes to provisions relating to royal powers.

The military-backed constitution is a vital part of the ruling junta's plans to hold a general election at the end of this year to return Thailand to democratic rule following a 2014 coup.

Political observers say the amendments requested by the king will likely delay the polls to mid-2018.

King Maha Vajiralongkorn's office last week requested changes to the draft constitution, which Thais overwhelmingly approved in a 2016 referendum, to allow the king to avoid appointing a regent when travelling abroad, among other changes.

The intervention is rare for a sitting Thai monarch, who are granted limited formal powers but wield significant political influence.

Parliament on Friday voted overwhelmingly to make amendments to the constitution as suggested by the king, who ascended the throne on Dec. 1 following the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. [L4N1F359K]

"I have drafted a letter to ask for the return of the constitution so that it can be improved and amended. The process will take one month," Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who is also junta chief, told reporters.

Prayuth said a committee of 11 legal experts would be assembled to amend the charter.

The prime minister has said that only provisions related to royal powers would be changed and matters related to government and civil liberties would be left untouched.

The draft constitution will be re-sent to King Vajiralongkorn for endorsement after it has been amended, lawmakers said.

The king will have three months to approve the revised draft.

"Once the constitution is endorsed, election and political party laws can take up to eight months to be passed. Elections will take place five months after those laws are passed," Somchai Sawangkarn, a member of parliament, told Reuters.

"Overall, the process could take a maximum of 17 months."

(Reporting by Cod Satrusayang and Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Randy Fabi)

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