Thailand’s rocky road to democracy

In Thailand constitution writers are kept busy, and the road to democracy is a complicated journey

Paul Sanderson

Government and governance | Southeast Asia

18 November 2015

Thailand rewrites its constitution on average every four years, but the next one threatens to lean more towards dictatorship and less towards democracy, writes Paul Sanderson.

There are few countries where being a constitution writer results in regular employment, but Thailand is one of them. There is even a long-running gag in which a student wanders around lost in the parliamentary library while trying to find a copy of the constitution. “Oh, it’s among the periodicals,” a librarian says. “There’s a new one every year.”

The reality is a little slower: a 21-member committee was installed in September to draft the nation’s 20th charter since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, putting the average at more than four years.

Thailand’s cycle of coups and ripping up constitutions is well-documented, and the 2013 film Paradoxocracy does a decent job at exploring the difficulties democracy has faced and explaining the template the military usually follows when it takes power.

The most recent attempt at drafting a constitution failed on September 6, ultimately for political reasons: the junta ordered military members of the rubber-stamp National Reform Council to vote the draft down after it became obvious there was no support for a proposed crisis panel that would effectively legalise future coups.

With the country’s two largest political parties finding themselves in the strange position of being united in opposition to the draft, there was little to no chance of it passing a referendum.

There was no downside for the administration of General Prayut Chan-o-cha in going back to the drawing board, apart from having to tell the world the “roadmap to democracy” was set back 20 months to mid-2017.

There was, however, the advantage of maintaining power longer as the king languishes in hospital. It is widely thought the military wants to be in control during the succession, or at least have a constitutional structure in place that limits the influence any civilian government can have.

The painfully obvious symbolism of the generals lining up behind the unpopular Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn for a national bike ride for the ailing queen on April 16 was lost on no one.

Constitution writers will no doubt have the potentially troublesome consequences of his coronation, or the potentially worse consequences of overlooking the playboy prince in favour of his more well-regarded sister, in mind when charting the path ahead.

As for the committee itself, it was a case of out with the old and in with the older.

Borwornsak Uwanno, 61, a veteran of the 1992 and 1997 constitution-drafting processes, was replaced as chairman by Meechai Ruchupan, 77, who has been aligned with military governments since the 1980s and has written undemocratic charters in the past.

His interim charter after the 1991 coup was the framework under which the snap poll of March 1992 was held, and contained a loophole that allowed parliament to appoint General Suchinda Kraprayoon as an unelected prime minister.

This in turn led to street protests and the “Black May” crackdown in which 52 people were killed, many more disappeared and thousands were arrested. General Suchinda’s deception may have directly sparked the protests, but Mr Meechai was his enabler.

Mr Meechai was not involved in 1997’s “People’s constitution”, which was far and away the country’s most democratic. The legal expert returned to the fore in 2006, creating the post-coup interim charter that served as a template for the much more conservative 2007 constitution, which he approved and submitted for royal endorsement as then-president of the National Legislative Assembly.

This all indicates the 20th Thai constitution will more likely err towards dictatorship rather than democracy. Not only can we infer Mr Meechai’s disdain for popular rule from his history of siding with ultra-conservative regimes, he has said as much. Elections are “not always necessary” for the Senate, he told the Bangkok Post in October. Indeed, he would work to ensure the Senate was not an echo of the House of Representatives.

In places like Australia and the United States, this might mean a Senate where states have equal representation, in Thailand this typically means a significant proportion of the seats will be reserved for establishment figures. Appointed senators have typically included retired judges, bureaucrats and military figures: so-called “good people”. Expect to see a significant number of appointed senators in the next Meechai charter, with perhaps one elected senator from each of the 77 provinces.

Mr Meechai has also reopened the idea of an outsider prime minister, despite this leading to disaster in 1992.

Under his current thinking, the non-elected prime minister would be appointed by MPs and this would be democratic enough. Anyone charged with corruption – not found guilty of, mind – would also be banned from politics. This is all clearly designed to keep anyone with the surname Shinawatra from ever being prime minister again, which will appeal to a significant and noisy minority.

The best way to prevent abuses by those elected to power is to strengthen democratic institutions, foster a free press and hold consistent elections where the people can vote corrupt politicians out.

History has shown Mr Meechai and those around him have always taken the opposite approach, and we are likely to see more of the same with the next constitution and next election, if and when it happens in mid-2017.

This article is a collaboration between Policy Forum and New Mandala, the premier website for analysis on Southeast Asia’s politics and society.

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