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Land of Smiles | The World Weekly

Thais who witnessed the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 could be forgiven if they were tiring of new constitutions. But the 20th incarnation, which voters approved by 61% to 39% in a referendum this week, may turn out to be one of the more momentous. According to the military junta the charter is a milestone on the “roadmap” towards democracy, but in reality it tightens the army’s grip on power to a degree not seen for several decades. 

As the result became clear, General Prayut Chan-ocha, the former army commander who declared himself prime minister in 2014 after the country’s umpteenth coup, urged his compatriots to “set aside our differences for now and move forward together to confront the complex challenges that lie ahead for us”. That seems far-fetched. With the military digging in, the outlook for democracy is bleak, and two years of draconian rule have merely papered over the dangerous polarisation that exists in Thai politics, and in society at large.

Constitutional dictatorship

The constitution is designed to cement the army’s influence in perpetuity, making further takeovers unnecessary. Every member of the National Assembly’s upper house will now be appointed by the junta, with six berths reserved for military officials. Mr. Prayut has reiterated that a general election will take place by the end of 2017, telling reporters this week to “have confidence in the roadmap”. But if the ailing king dies before then it may be pushed back (again), and even if the prime minister stays true to his word changes to the electoral process mean parties will struggle to secure an absolute majority.

A soldier casts his vote in Bangkok on August 7

Weak coalition administrations are likely to become the norm. “You can see how debilitating that would be in terms of a party system that’s dominated by personalities,” Carlo Bonura, a senior fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, told The World Weekly. 

The aim is to neuter parties aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra, the policeman-turned-mogul-turned-politician who leveraged his telecommunications and media empire to propel himself into power in 2001, and whose populist appeal to poorer voters, particularly in the north and northeast, profoundly unnerved the political and business establishment in Bangkok. The army ousted him in 2006, ending 14 years of elected civilian governments, and repeated the exercise with his sister, Yingluck, in 2014; but their parties have won every general election this millennium and the broader ‘red shirt’ movement remains potent.

Some observers see parallels with the 1950s and 1960s, when the military hoarded power without even pretending to transfer government back to civilians. Thanks to a second question on the ballot paper, backed by 58% of voters, the Senate will also play a role in choosing prime ministers, prompting concerns that the military will simply cherry-pick its own candidate. This may be Mr. Prayut himself, who continues to respond coyly when asked if he will stand for election.

A Shinawatra supporter with pictures of Thaksin and Yingluck on her head at rally in May 2010

For these reasons Aim Sinpeng, an expert in Thai politics at the University of Sydney, thinks the new charter is “the most undemocratic in recent years, giving undue powers to the unelected elites and providing mechanisms that would make it nearly impossible to amend” in the future. “The new constitution will give enormous powers to the military to intervene actively in politics for years to come,” she told TWW. Human Rights Watch likewise fears the charter leads Thailand deeper into dictatorship, entrenching “the abusive and unaccountable military rule that Thailand has endured since the May 2014 coup”.

‘A perfectly autocratic referendum’

The government reacted bullishly to foreign criticism. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, wrote a long letter to the Economist magazine alleging that a pre-referendum article was “Western-centric” and contained “a raft of one-sided observations which warrant clarification”. Unsurprisingly, in Thailand the junta slapped itself on the back, declaring the “pinnacle” of years of “great toil”.

Yet its victory was sound rather than resounding, especially given the atmosphere of intense repression in which the referendum took place. Both main opposition parties, the Democrats and Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai, officially backed ‘No’, the former having been sidelined by the military despite traditionally supporting the royalist establishment. But open dissent was almost impossible. The junta blocked attempts by the red shirts to set up election monitoring stations and suppressed all criticism of the charter. Indeed in April General Prayut said opponents “have no rights to say they disagree… 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.” 

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 120 politicians, activists and journalists were arrested for speaking out of line, all of whom are likely to be tried in front of military tribunals, not civilian courts. Two eight-year-old girls who tore down posters because they liked the pink colour of the official paper were charged with obstructing the referendum process, and squads of army cadets were dispatched across the country to rally the ‘Yes’ vote.

Soldiers confront red shirt protesters in Bangkok on May 19, 2010, when 91 people were killed

In light of this “perfectly autocratic” referendum, Dr. Bonura thinks 61% approval, with turnout of just over 59%, was underwhelming. Indeed a majority of voters opposed the draft in the northeast and in the deep south, home to a long-running Muslim separatist insurgency.

Few, however, expect this to dent the junta’s sense of accomplishment, nor to stymie its drive to consolidate control. In the short term “we will see the military gaining newfound confidence on their decision,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a political scientist at the University of Kyoto and a high-profile critic of the military government, which has revoked his Thai passport. “The approval of the constitution will pave the way for the junta to draft more laws for the maintenance of its power and to continue to curb dissent views prior to the elections,” he told TWW.

Trouble in paradise

The dearth of accurate information about the text available to most voters makes it hard to interpret the result. Before the referendum the drafters portrayed the constitution as an “anti-corruption” charter designed to rein in the alleged graft of the Shinawatra clan, and the junta and its supporters  have subsequently claimed this was the message endorsed on August 7. “Thai voters supported it because they wanted to rectify flaws in Thai democracy that have led to broken politics, abuse of power, rampant corruption, a dysfunctional Parliament, government shutdowns, street violence and chaos,” the country's ambassador to the US wrote to the Washington Post, in response to an editorial entitled 'Thailand's Potemkin Revolution'.

Although anecdotal evidence lends this some credence, opposition politicians and outside observers think most people doubted Mr. Prayut's sincerity in claiming a general election would be held even if the charter was shot down. “The majority of those who voted 'Yes' were voting in favour of promised elections, which the government has pledged to hold within 2017,” wrote Duncan McCargo of Leeds University in the UK. “Many clearly hope that approval of the charter will lead back to a degree of political normalcy.” 

If so, Professor Pavin says, they are in for shock. “It is true that some, who may disagree with the coup, voted ‘Yes’ for the constitution - but this may be because they wanted to move on, they wanted a quick election so that Thailand, for them, could return to normalcy,” he told TWW. “Of course, this view is illusive. And illusion cannot guarantee stability.”

A soldier stands in front of a picture of King Bhumibol in Bangkok on May 23, 2014, as the coup gathers steam

If the geographical breakdown of the vote is anything to go by, the social and political divisions that rocked Thailand for a decade before the 2014 coup remain unresolved. Ms. Yingluck’s opposition failed to sway a majority to vote ‘No’, but it is too early to write off the red shirts as a dynamic machine. Her swift if critical acknowledgement of the result implies a stage-managed period of obeisance that will end when elections are held, Dr. Bonura tentatively suggests. At the same time, opposition to the Shinawatras still runs deep in greater Bangkok and the upper south, even if the ‘yellow shirts’ whose protests brought down a pro-Thaksin government in 2008 are a diminished force.

Besides an election, the other juncture at which this conflict could reignite is the looming royal succession. Bhumibol, the widely revered king whose personality cult helps justify military rule, is permanently confined to hospital; the crown prince, his widely reviled son, has a strained relationship with the top brass and no such public following. When he assumed power two years ago, General Prayut’s stated aim was to “bring back happiness to all Thai people”, but it is hard to see joy returning to the Land of Smiles any time soon.

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