Between Two Worlds: Thailand’s Coup One Year On
May 27, 2015
The first anniversary of Thailand’s latest coup passed without ceremony or acknowledgment by the military-led National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), which assumed power following the ouster of the elected Pheu Thai government on May 22 last year. The anniversary was marked by fresh statements of concern from international organizations, pointed commentary from international news agencies and country specialists, and thoughtful reflections by a handful of respected Thai political observers whose public prominence and carefully measured views limit their risk of political censure.
The 2014 coup ended several months of escalating political tension triggered by the clandestine bid of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to pass a blanket amnesty bill and alter the 2007 Constitution to give the Senate more elected members. Among several implications of the amnesty bill that rankled both opponents of the government and its core Red Shirt supporters, the lightning-rod factor for opponents was the prospective pardon and return from self-exile of the prime minister’s brother, convicted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The torrent of events that followed the bill’s defeat underlined how deeply polarizing Mr. Thaksin remains, and stoked the resolve of Thailand’s conservative elite to draw on its proven arsenal of street protests and legal maneuvers to remove a Thaksin-backed government that had come to power with a sweeping electoral mandate.
Taking stock of events in the last year, what are some of the key developments and outstanding issues of concern?
Under the leadership of former military commander turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the NCPO took immediate steps to consolidate power following the coup. Flexing martial law authority, the junta effectively silenced critics through intense scrutiny, arrest, and detention, restrictions on freedom of assembly, tight controls on print and broadcast media, and efforts to contain social media that had played an instrumental – and at times incendiary – role in the lead-up to the coup. Vaguely defined reconciliation measures invoked images of traditional Thai moral values under siege by unscrupulous political actors, but the promise of unity and understanding under the trusted guidance of “good” citizens of superior moral integrity sat awkwardly alongside political moves that seemed anything but conciliatory in spirit – among them the impeachment of Ms. Yingluck, for good measure, on the heels of her earlier removal from office by the Constitutional Court.
The steps that followed the consolidation phase marked a change in direction from previous coups. While the military leaders of the last coup government in 2006 swiftly distanced themselves from day-to-day political administration and engaged respected technical advisors to guide the economy and other national policy priorities, the NCPO leadership – under the banner of a “roadmap for reform” that promised to lay the groundwork for a return to electoral democracy – maintained a firm military grip at every level of authority. The appointed Cabinet and National Assembly were dominated by serving and retired military officials, and the councils tasked with day-to-day guidance of the reform process and the drafting of a new constitution also bore a clear military stamp. While the appointed reform councils were tasked with convening vaguely-defined public consultative forums in different parts of the country, independent observers described heavily scripted, tick-the-box formalities in which invited participants were lectured by authorities but afforded little scope to comment or to register alternative views.
The Constitutional Drafting Committee referred its draft constitution to the National Reform Council in April 2015. Several features of the draft charter have drawn attention and raised concerns. First impressions have fastened on its remarkable length and prescriptive detail. Having previously set records for the number of constitutions since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932 (17 at last count), Thailand may shortly claim one of the world’s longest charters. Running 194 page and 315 articles, the draft constitution reflects the preference of its authors for an exhaustively detailed document over an elegantly succinct one that would entrust lawmakers with responsibility for sound interpretative judgment.
The draft makes several significant changes to national electoral governance, including the transition from a first-past-the post electoral system to a mixed-member, proportional system. The drafters insist that the change will reduce large-majority governments and enhance the electoral fortunes of smaller parties. While many nations have been well served by coalition governments at different junctures in their political history, one wonders how street-toughened Thai political factions that have waged bitter contests for over a decade and could not compromise to avert a coup will cooperate in a government of national unity.
The draft charter also provides for a non-elected prime minister where circumstances require, and alters the composition of the Senate to include fewer elected members and more appointees from designated sectors, including the armed forces, retired senior bureaucracy, professional associations, and academia. Of still greater concern, the draft intimates that the controversial, non-elected reform councils and other bodies appointed by the NCPO will continue in some elite-guided, veto-wielding watchdog role beyond the next election. This combination of changes and prescriptive provisions defines a constitution that unequivocally favors appointed administrators over elected politicians, drips with allusions to moral virtues, and seemingly sets the remarkable challenge of depoliticizing a nation whose people have long preferred democracy to authoritarianism.
One might naturally imagine the deposed Pheu Thai party unhappy with these measures, and the Democrat Party basking in smug philosophical alignment with the military government and good prospects for the next election. In fact, however, nearly all political factions have registered grave concern about the draft constitution. In this remarkable environment, no political party feels loved or respected by an authoritarian regime that seems bent on shrinking the space for political actors. In a recent NCPO consultation with different political stakeholders, party spokespersons who were otherwise bitterly divided reportedly voiced the common view that a sound constitution is preferable to a flawed one, even if more time is needed to produce an alternative charter.
In the meantime, who will pass judgment on the integrity of the new constitution?
It appears that, as with the 2007 Constitution, the voting public will be given an opportunity to approve or reject the new charter through a national referendum. What is not clear is whether the junta will take measures to educate the public about the long and complex document and the implications of its prescriptive content, whether other stakeholders will be at liberty to conduct independent information campaigns to influence public debate, or what will follow if Thais reject the draft constitution. Speculation mounts that a “no” vote would serve to conveniently extend the tenure of the NCPO, launch a fresh drafting process, and ultimately degenerate into an endless loop of public referral, rejection, and restart that would indefinitely extend an authoritarian government that may be in no hurry to step down when complex changes and potentially destabilizing transitions lie ahead for Thailand.
Most strikingly absent from the constitutional reform process are the confidence-boosting elements of transparency, consultation, and broad-based public input. Thailand’s unfinished history of constitutional reform yields a fundamental lesson – consistent with international experience – that the most enduring constitutions are those that afford greatest scope for public review, input, and ownership. While the 1997 “People’s Constitution” was not perfect, the consultative process that informed that milestone charter set the benchmark for contemporary constitution making. In contrast, public confidence in the 2007 Constitution was compromised by its coup origins. The next constitution will inevitably be held to the standard of the 1997 charter, with public ownership and trust the key to its legitimacy and acceptance. The importance of public understanding and input has registered on young, tech-savvy innovators who have created social media platforms for debate on the draft constitution, but will the point register on those in authority? Does room remain for the process to win public support?
One year on, concern is mounting that neither the reform roadmap nor international and domestic calls for a return to electoral democracy will yield an enduring political settlement. From low whispers to rising clamor, discussions turn from the promise of reform and reconciliation to a reckoning of present events as backward steps on an arduous path that will continue through the forthcoming election, successor constitutions, later elections, and a complex of uncertain political events to come, with the specter of metronome shifts between political crisis and stop-gap remedies, and repeated transitions between elected governments and authoritarian regimes that continue to fail the Thai people. For now, Thailand seems caught in a limbo state, recalling the words of English poet Matthew Arnold, whose timeless reflection on the crisis of faith and confidence that confronted the Victorian era might well have anticipated this beleaguered future nation: “wandering between two worlds, one dead; the other powerless to be born.”
Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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