Thailand’s voters approved a new constitution last weekend. The referendum results were ordained; while the vote was not rigged, the context in which it occurred made approval a virtual certainty. The new charter locks in the role of the military as the guiding force in Thai politics, a development that suits the generals and their allies who profit from the current political and economic order.
Thailand has been run by a military junta, headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired army general, since it overthrew the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. Yingluck, who took office in 2011, was subsequently charged with corruption in connection with a rice purchasing program designed to lift farmers’ incomes.
Officially, the coup was launched to restore order to the country as violence between the government and its opponents threatened to descend to civil war. While positioning itself above politics, the military was acting in ways that protected and advanced the interests of the opposition, which had waged war against Yingluck and her allies for over a decade.
The conflict began over a decade ago when Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon who was one of the richest men in Asia, was elected prime minister in national elections in 2001. Thaksin forged a populist coalition that rode the discontent of working class and rural voters: His political machine was won every election held since. Those victories threatened to unravel the thick weave of political and economic interests that had ruled Thailand for decades. The result was a coup in 2006 in which Thaksin was forced from power and into exile, where he has lived since 2008. Still, the power of his movement lived on: After the coup, a new version of Thaksin’s party won elections held in 2007. It was dissolved by judicial order on charges of electoral fraud; many dismissed the ruling as “a judicial coup” committed by the same conservative forces. Yet another version of the party, this time with Yingluck at its head, contested the 2011 ballot and won. That interlude ended again with conservative forces reasserting themselves as the rightful rulers of Thailand.
The constitution approved last weekend makes that clear. That charter was drafted by a committee hand-picked by the junta and sought to eliminate corruption from government. It sets a transition period to full civilian rule of at least five years, during which all emergency decrees enacted by the junta without parliamentary approval remain valid. The new parliament will consist of a 500-member Lower House elected by the public and a 250-member Senate that will be effectively appointed by the military and whose members will include the commanders of the army and security services. In the last constitution, half of the Senate was elected and half appointed. If the Lower House is divided and unable to select a prime minister, the Senate can select anyone it deems appropriate.
The decision to hold the referendum could be called a gamble. The junta’s record of governance has been spotty. The economy has grown about 3.5 percent, well below its average, since the military took power. Foreign investment has fallen off as uncertainty about the country’s future has persisted. The constitution has taken longer than expected to draft and the return to democratic rule has been repeatedly delayed.
Nevertheless, the constitution was approved by a little more than 61 percent of voters, with a turnout of only 55 percent of registered voters. Approval was abetted by a ban on political rallies and open discussion of the new constitution; criticism of the new charter was made punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Still, the “yes” vote means that the junta can claim that the charter has been democratically approved and that the current and future governments are legitimate.
It is likely that voters were most attracted to the idea that approving the constitution would allow elections to resume — with a general election promised in 2017 — and again give them a say in selecting their government. If the last decade is any indication, they will not be intimidated by the weighting of the electoral scales and will again empower a government that speaks to the concerns of the majority of Thais.
Now, however, the power of such a government will be constricted. The conservatives and their allies throughout the power structure will ensure that their interests are not threatened. That is the grim reality of Thai politics. There are no neutral arbiters of the national interest. Many groups and individuals may claim to do so, but the truth is that they have a thumb on the scale and have acted with a grim determination to protect their own interests.
The stakes in the political battles have intensified as King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s health has deteriorated. The revered monarch is 88 years old and many Thais (and foreigners) worry about how the country will absorb his death after 70 years on the throne. He commands extraordinary respect throughout the country and has been a stabilizing influence on Thai politics. Less attention has been paid to the impact of his passing on the Crown Property Bureau — assets controlled by the royal household that have an estimated value of $37 billion to $53 billion. Those numbers weigh as heavily on political calculations in Bangkok as do abstract notions of political legitimacy and order.