Military roadmap hits a pothole in Thailand . . .

Robert Horn's picture

THAI voters have approved a new Constitution put forward by the ruling military Government, Thailand’s 21st new charter since 1932. Considering Thailand’s track record, the odds are that this charter won’t be the last . . . 

BANGKOK — The thrill of victory did not last long. In a national referendum on August 7, the military Government that seized power in Thailand two years ago scored a big win when voters in a national referendum approved a new Constitution written by a handpicked committee of junta supporters who boasted it would be tough on corruption.

Critics said the charter was regressive. It would reduce the role of elected politicians in future Governments and diminish the voice of the people.

Some said it was written chiefly to prevent the divisive Shinawatra clan — former elected Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck, both ousted in military coups — and the various incarnations of their political party, from re-gaining power.

The conflict between pro- and anti-Shinawatra forces has torn Thailand apart, produced two coups, street violence and a lost decade in terms of development and the economy. Thailand’s inability to resolve this conflict has damaged the confidence of foreign investors— and cost its economy dearly.

The charter was approved by a decisive 61 to 39 per cent of voters. Even 49 per cent of voters in the Shinawatra’s stronghold of northeastern Thailand approved.

The new charter is a key milestone in the junta’s “roadmap” to building what it calls a “sustainable democracy.” Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the General running the country, has pledged to hold elections for a new Government by the end of 2017.

But five days after the polls closed, 14 bombs exploded across seven cities in Southern Thailand, many of them popular tourist destinations.

Tourism is one of few sectors keeping the economy afloat because exports, the traditional driver of the Thai economy, have faltered amid weak demand in overseas markets and the declining competitiveness of many Thai products.

The Government immediately cast blame on the Shinawatras and their supporters.

But despite urging their followers to reject the charter, the Shinawatras insisted they had no hand in the bombings. And, as more evidence emerged, suspicion began shifting towards Muslim radicals from the Deep South.

Either way, the bombings were a black eye for the military Government, which has justified its rule on its ability to keep a lid on civil conflict.

The bombings also complicated interpretations of the referendum outcome.

Before the blasts, some analysts were saying Thai voters were fed up with democracy and its bitter divides, a phenomenon seen in several other countries around the world.

Other analysts were quick to say the charter outcome was a signal that the Shinawatras are losing support among the electorate. The message, however, was actually more mixed.

George Morgan, of Asia Plus Securities, said it was too soon to sound the death knell on the Shinawatra dynasty.

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Thais are fed up with their politicians. They seem willing to put up with ‘guided democracy’ for the sake of stability, rather than let politicians rule the roost again and risk renewed degeneration into unfettered corruption and divisiveness,” Morgan wrote in a research paper.

“Nevertheless, it would be dangerous to assume that the politicians are completely down and out as a result of the referendum. Following the passage of the 2007 Constitution under similar circumstances, with a military-sponsored Government in power, a pro-Thaksin party came back strongly in the 2007 election.”

The electorate that approved the charter might still be willing to vote the Shinawatras back into power. The answer to that won’t come until next year at the earliest.

However, under the new charter, the military, the courts, and the bureaucracy will all have stronger roles. An appointed Senate will be able to vote on who becomes Prime Minister, along with members of the elected House of Representatives, essentially exercising veto power over the electorate.

Thailand’s political system has traditionally tried to achieve balance between all these groups.

The system laid out in the new charter is similar to one Thailand had in the 1980s, when there was an appointed Prime Minister, a Legislature with both elected and appointed Members, and the economy began a period of spectacular growth.

The political pendulum, which has been swinging towards more liberal democracy in recent decades, appears to be swinging back the other way. Re-imposing an old formula appears regressive. The question is: will it be effective?

Thailand is a different nation today than it was in the 1980s. The electorate, particularly rural voters in the North and Northeast, has become better educated, and more active and engaged politically, partly due to the campaigns and organising efforts of the Shinawatras. 

Voters are unlikely to remain silent or passive if they feel their will is being thwarted by non-elected Senators and bureaucrats.

Should the lid the military has placed on dissent remain too tight, it could become a pressure cooker leading to another round of civil unrest somewhere down the road. That is not a prospect investors – or the Thai pubic – will find appealing.

But there is also a sense that Thai voters, even some of those who don’t support the military in Government, simply want to move on.

“For Thais, approval was partly a way to keep polls on course for next year or early 2018, as pledged by the [junta], and a way to send a message against corruption and money politics, if not a validation of military rule as such,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

The charter was only the second in Thai history to be submitted to the public in a referendum. On that score, the military deserves credit.

On the other hand, the military did not involve the political parties or civil society groups in any meaningful way when it came to drafting the charter, and stifled voices opposed to it.

Consequently, despite voting for the charter to pave the way for elections, it is doubtful that many Thais feel a strong sense of ownership. That could prove to be its weakness in the long run and a potential source of another round of civil conflict.

Creating a framework to peacefully manage conflict is one of the key functions of a charter that works and endures. But this new charter is Thailand’s 21st since 1932. Considering Thailand’s track record, odds are it won’t be the last.