Commentary / World

Aug. 7 will be a day of reckoning for Thailand

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

The Thai military regime of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has set Aug. 7 for a referendum of the controversial constitution drafted by army-appointed committees. The referendum is a part of the junta’s self-proclaimed road map to restore democracy to the country. Undeniably, the junta is striving to exploit the referendum to legitimize the constitution. And this constitution will serve as a vital mechanism to guarantee some political power for the military in the post-election period.

But the current draft of the constitution is troublesome and can be perceived as an obstacle to democracy in Thailand. This is simply because it serves to shrink the democratic space, rather than widen it.

There are several provisions designed to preserve some political power in the hands of the traditional elites in the continuing process of influencing the Thai political domain. This includes empowerment of the Senate, whose members would all be appointed. A portion of the seats in the Senate would be reserved for the military, a replica of the design of Myanmar’s parliament, with 25 percent of the seats to be occupied by army personnel.

Moreover, the constitution will empower the so-called “independent” organizations, for example, the Constitutional Court, the Administration Court, the National Anti-Corruption Agency, the Human Rights Commission and the Election Commission, while assigning them as instruments of the old power in challenging the position of future elected governments.

A provision is written to allow future prime ministers to be unelected appointees, possibly paving the way for unelected old generals to hold the premiership. It is therefore possible that Gen. Prayuth could come back as premier after the election. The constitution also permits independent candidates to run in an election; this stresses an effort to break down the domination of powerful parties, like that of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, from taking control of the parliament.

As a result, Thais could anticipate future governments to be weak, or shaky coalitions, being maneuvered by the traditional elites who are not willing to push for political reforms as they have claimed.

Thus, it is imperative for the junta to ensure the approval of the referendum by the public. In so doing, the military is adopting a hard-hitting approach against those denouncing the constitution. It is prohibited for anyone to protest against the constitution in public or on social media. Activists are warned not to launch “Vote No” (to the constitution) campaigns. Academics are told not to organize conferences, which could encourage a rejection of the military-drafted charter.

Meanwhile, as fears have grown in regards to the nontransparent nature of the referendum and the intimidation against those disapproving the constitution, some Thais have called for the international community, and in particular the United Nations, to intervene in the process and closely monitor the referendum. Immediately, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai dismissed the call, viewing it as unnecessary and intruding into Thailand’s domestic affairs.

To demonstrate to the public the seriousness of the junta regarding the referendum, on April 27 it “abducted” 10 people for allegedly violating the Computer Crimes Act, as they openly opposed the draft constitution. The latest abduction has stirred up a new round of the climate of fear and threatens the freedom of expression.

Already some organizations with links to the junta have played their role in eliminating enemies of the regime. Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, a member of the pro-junta Election Commission, filed charges against a group of Thais who posted supposedly “foul and strong” comments online that criticized the constitution. This is the first case under a law that disallows online campaigns against the charter.

The absurd behavior of the junta can be explained. Thailand is approaching an uncertain royal succession. Through the decades, King Bhumibol Adulyadej made political stability possible, and he also provided political benefits to the elites within his own circle. But his era is coming to an end. The heir apparent, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, will not be in the position to provide the same security to those elites because he lacks moral authority and popularity.

The less-able heir apparent is leaving a political vacuum for the military to fill as part of its effort to maintain its position of power after Bhumibol passes from the scene. Hence, a coup was necessary for the military to take charge of the looming succession. A new constitution must be written to benefit the military. And a referendum must be held to facilitate the implementation of that constitution.

While the constitution has been much criticized for its undemocratic nature, predicting the outcome of the referendum is difficult amid the current climate of fear. Obviously, the military is hoping an overwhelming endorsement from the population. But what should happen if the result of the referendum is negative?

At one level, it will open the way for the military to prolong its rule. This could mean that the charter will have to be amended or rewritten until it satisfies the Thai people through the next round of referendum. Making amendments or rewriting it would take time. Thus, the junta might not be able to organize the next election in 2017 as planned.

At the same time, a rejection of the constitution through the referendum might not be totally disastrous for the junta. Recently, Prayuth told the media that, if necessary, the junta could stay in power for another five years to make sure that it will achieve the necessary reforms.

But time is not on the side of the junta. Domestic and international pressure against the military rule is rising. A negative outcome for the referendum would stress the lack of legitimacy of the current power holders. Holding Thai democracy hostage for another five years could further intensify an anti-junta attitude among Thais. Political protests, or even violence, are equally possible as Thais look ahead.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.