Thailand's great leap backwards
Although the military junta which seized power in Thailand in 2014 has now managed to secure public approval for its draft constitution, this was hardly a real exercise of the people's will. As Tom Fawthrop explains, this move has effectively jettisoned the great democratic strides made by the country since the promulgation of the 1997 constitution.
THE country once known as Siam has been promoted by tourism authorities as 'Amazing Thailand' and the 'Land of Smiles', but for most Thai people, there has been little to smile about since the 2014 military coup and all the political mayhem, corruption and mass unrest that preceded it.
This is a coup-prone country. Thailand is living under the harshest repression since the 1976 coup that unleashed a storm of ultra-right vigilante groups backed by the military that forced more than 10,000 students and labour activists into the jungle.
The 2014 coup was not steeped in bloodshed, but the ruling military regime's draconian imposition of censorship and its prosecuting zeal have reached Orwellian 'Big Brother' levels for its unceasing campaign to clamp down on even the smallest gestures of anti-coup sentiment. General Prayuth Chan-ocha, the leader of the military junta and prime minister, has said that individuals who oppose him are in need of 'attitude adjustment', now a basis for arbitrary detention by the army.
On 7 August the junta proffered their draft constitution for public approval in a referendum, as a first step to garner some gloss of legitimacy since their dramatic seizure of power over two years ago. Key points that were to be decided in the referendum included:
* The constitution would allow for an unelected prime minister in the event of political deadlock and an unelected senate appointed by the junta, with seats reserved for military commanders to check the powers of elected lawmakers during a five-year transition period.
* Provisions in the charter would legally oblige any future government to follow the military's 20-year national development plan and allow military allies to take legal action against any government which does not adhere to the plan.
This would be a huge step backwards from the democratic provisions of the 1997 and 2006 constitutions in which the prime minister was required to be an elected member of parliament and the senate was also based on election.
Far from relaxing the state of repression so that a real debate could take place, the military set about framing the referendum campaign as a 'Yes only' campaign. A draconian Referendum Act that carried potential 10-year prison sentences for misrepresenting the draft, criticising its content or disrupting the vote was imposed on the process.
Prime Minister Prayuth brazenly declared that the Thai people 'have no rights to say that they disagree' with him: 'I don't allow anyone to debate or hold a press conference about the draft constitution. Yet they still disobey my orders. They will be arrested and jailed for 10 years. No one will be exempted, not even the media.'
Human Rights Watch reported the arrest of at least 120 people for violating the campaign restrictions. The organisation's senior researcher for Thailand, Sunai Phasuk, said the draft constitution 'essentially enshrines the abuse of power and impunity'.
In June, the United Nations expressed its concerns about the restrictions. These were ignored by the regime, which apparently released comments to the local press saying the UN was not concerned. A surprised UN reiterated that on the contrary, it was deeply concerned and that the restrictions compromised the credibility of the plebiscite.
Very few Thais were exposed to arguments about the charter's flaws and merits: few even saw a copy, and the small number who did were hardly likely to wade through its 279 articles. They were clearly not expected to read it. Most voters went to the polling stations with little idea of what was in the charter. They had only frequently heard the drafters' argument that it would address political corruption and help reform the country.
It was rare for an opposing view to leak out through the thick curtain of censorship. The blanket ban on expressing opposition meant that the dissenting voices of political parties, human rights activists and most of civil society could not be heard by the general public.
Not surprisingly, there was only a 59% turnout for the referendum. Some 61% of voters approved the draft constitution.
Paul Chambers, an expert on the Thai military at Chiang Mai University, expounded on the lack of any meaningful choice being offered the Thai people. 'The referendum was run by and for the military. The voters were pressured to legitimise the junta with a "yes" vote. The turnout was not high, and voters seeking a way forward for democracy were given little choice between a junta-preferred path to democracy or continued direct military rule.'
The Puea Thai party aligned to exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra had won the last freely contested election prior to the coup, backed by its legions of 'Red Shirt' supporters. Its northeastern stronghold was the only region to deliver a majority No vote (51%), demonstrating that the silent anger and frustration over the coup had not subsided, despite the detentions of many key cadres and despite the one-sided referendum campaign.
In the end, the Yes vote won the day for a variety of reasons. Most of Bangkok's middle class have never come to terms with the repeated electoral victories of pro-Thaksin parties since 2001, which were based on massive rural support especially in the vote-rich northeast. After a previous military coup in 2006, the country was returned to democracy a year later and again the pro-Thaksin party was able to sweep back into power thanks to its stronghold of rural poor.
What is very obvious is the 2014 coup leaders' determination that this will not happen again. Hence the new constitution is carefully tailored in the name of 'guided democracy' to block the rural vote from repeating their previous triumphs at the ballot box.
The junta has made various promises about elections only to postpone the date. Now the polls are maybe set for 2018, but then again it is all up to the generals as to when, and if, there will be any election at all.
Thailand's perpetual crisis
Senior researcher at the Centre de Recherches Internationales (CERI) in Paris, David Camroux has traced the chaotic path of Thai politics from the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932 to the May 2014 coup - the sixth in this period. He says that each military coup tears up the old constitution and draws up a new one, which leads inexorably to 'the vicious circles of coups, interim constitutions, permanent (sic) constitutions, elections and protests leading to further coups … The draft constitution [approved] in the referendum [on 7 August] will be the 21st or 22nd since 1932 - something of a world record.'
Prime Minister Prayuth claims that his coup regime has ushered in an era of stability and ended the mass demonstrations and sporadic violence of recent years between rival political movements. But, former cabinet minister Chaturon Chaisang has warned, refusing to allow people to choose their path is a recipe for future conflict.
Millions of voters, especially in northeast Thailand, who previously elected 'Red Shirt' governments will increasingly feel cheated and disenfranchised by the new rules of a 'guided democracy'. Little has been done to advance national reconciliation between the urban elites and the rural poor, a fundamental faultline of Thai politics. Until some consensus is forged to bridge this great political and social divide, the political deadlock that engulfs Thailand will continue to cripple democratic socio-economic development.
After the democratic 1997 constitution, Thailand enjoyed a high degree of press freedom and a very active civil society, with the rights of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) enshrined as part of good governance. While Thai society advanced during this period, its neighbour Myanmar was still marooned in decades-long military rule.
Ironically, while Myanmar is now fast changing and has a vibrant civil society, Thailand appears to have been pushed down the path of regression. Myanmar, once a pariah state, has gone forwards towards a democratic transition. In contrast, after the August referendum there is no clear roadmap for Thailand to change course with a return to democracy. The dark uncertainty of a future without any guarantees of human rights or checks on the power of the state speaks volumes about how Myanmar and Thailand have sailed in opposite directions since the Thai coup of 2014.
Tom Fawthrop is a writer, journalist and filmmaker who has reported on Thailand and South-East Asia since the 1980s. His latest documentary, The Last Undammed River, on the threat of megadams on the Salween River, was broadcast on Democratic Voice of Burma TV. He has written for The Economist and The Ecologist, among other publications.
*Third World Resurgence No. 310/311, Jun/July 2016, pp 32-33