The portions of Thailand’s new written constitution that are emerging on the Internet in English present a charter designed to make sure that any election, should there be one anytime soon, will be strictly controlled by the military and the royalty in Bangkok, and that the franchise will effectively be denied to many voters.
What it seems to mean, as widely expected, is that Thailand’s latest experiment with democracy is over, with pre-ordained debate that began Monday on the new document in the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order. Liberalization began in 1997 with a reform constitution that led to the elevation in 2001 of billionaire telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra to the premiership and ended with the coup that deposed his sister Yingluck as prime minister last May. It remains to be seen how permanent that is.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a radical socialist opponent of the junta who is in exile in the UK, called the new document “possibly the worst constitution that has ever been drafted in Thailand. It should be opposed.”
Thaksin’s ascendancy in 2001 resulted in the implementation of a wide range of social policies including health care, low-cost loans and community enterprise incubators to benefit the rural poor and the classless in the urban areas that made him wildly popular – while he also grew increasingly autocratic and his administration was regarded as increasingly corrupt. Those social policies ensured his reelection until he was ousted in a 2006 coup and eventually was forced to flee the country ahead of corruption charges. Nonetheless, surrogate governments enabled him to run the country from exile.
While the new charter does mandate healthcare and education reforms, among other things, it is written to guarantee that few if any Thaksin allies will ever again take part in the political process. [The constitution, not available when this article was written, has since been translated and can be found here: http://www.student-weekly.com/pdf/200415-constitution-en.pdf] Those who have been arrested or banned for political activity will be barred for life from politics under Article 11. Almost all of those arrested in the coup and subsequent crackdown in 2014 were members of the Pheu Thai Party or allied with it or previous Thaksin-led parties.
“From the time of the coup, I maintained that this coup would be different from previous ones,” a western businessman told Asia Sentinel “Prayuth would be his own man, and he is a tough son of a bitch. It was also clear to me that he would ensure that Thai politics would henceforth be a tightly controlled game, with a democratic façade masking semi-authoritarian rule, and Prayuth would one way or another be part of the game for some time to come. He does not intend to let go of power until well after the [royal] succession. He feels that it is his mission to preserve order and stability in the nation as it passes through the succession years.”
The new document, consisting of 50,000 words and 315 sections, is scheduled to be voted on and ratified in September by the military-dominated legislature put in place by Prayuth, replacing the charter that was voided last May. While there was some talk of a public referendum, that is extremely unlikely since Thaksin’s rural forces in the north and the east of the country would probably vote it down. It will be the 20th charter to be put in place since 1932.
In addition to putting Thaksin’s people back in a rural box, the charter is designed to strangle the kind of political party machine that Thaksin built. Even Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat Party premier who tacitly backed the coup is complaining that the new constitution would set the country’s political system back 30 years.
Basically, as Abhisit said, the new constitution represents a return to the semi-democracy that dominated the country under Prem Tinsulanonda, the former army chief who took over in 1980 and ruled as prime minister through 1988 before becoming the head of the king’s privy council, where he remains. It appears designed to legitimize the military’s intervention in politics and indemnifies them from prosecution should a civilian government somehow come to power. As it has since the country’s first coup in 1932, either overtly or covertly, the military will dominate the political process.