Thailand

Voting out democracy

Print edition : September 16, 2016

A 'No' installation being removed at Thammasat University in Bangkok after the 'Yes' victory in the Constitutional referendum on August 7. Photo: Borja Sanchez-Trillo/AFP

Members of the New Democracy Movement arrive at the military court in Bangkok to stand trial for criticising the draft Constitution, on July 5. Photo: Sakchai Lalit/AP

Junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha casting his vote in the referendum. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra casting her vote. Photo: Vicky Ge Huang/AP

King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Photo: Damir Sagolj/REUTERS

Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is believed to be against the periodic coups the Thai military indulges in. Photo: Adrees Latif/Reuters

The military junta in Thailand gets yet another Constitution passed through a “referendum” which effectively prevents any single party from gaining a majority in Parliament.

THE THAI ARMY JUNTA WHICH CALLS ITSELF the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and which seized power from a democratically elected government on May 2014 now seems intent on permanently converting electoral politics into a farce. On August 7, Thais were told to vote in a referendum that in effect sought to curtail their democratic rights. It was on a new Constitution drafted at the behest of the Bangkok elite who are in cahoots with the clique of generals who staged the 2014 coup that ousted the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The army-run government did not allow any meaningful debate to take place on the draft Constitution. The media were silenced and many opposition members and others who were against the undemocratic Constitution were arrested. Many critics were charged with sedition. Ahead of the referendum, all public discussions on the proposed constitutional changes were banned. A TV station supporting Yingluck Shinawatra’s party was taken off the air for a month prior to the referendum campaign. Many former Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament were arrested for criticising the army-drafted Constitution.

Criticism of the draft Constitution is punishable by jail terms of up to 10 years. Even mocking the junta leader, Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who is increasingly viewed as a comical figure, is considered a serious crime. Eight Thai citizens were given long prison sentences for criticising him on Facebook. Two eight-year-old girls were arrested for tearing down posters and urging people to vote in the referendum. Since the army took over two years ago, more than 1,300 people have been detained for the purpose of “attitude adjustment” and another 1,600 tried in military courts. The referendum was held at a time when the Thai people were already upset with the military junta’s handling of the economy. The Deputy Prime Minister, Somkid Jatusripitak, admitted late last year that the people were “dismal” and that the country was like “a sick person standing in the cold wind”. Military rule has also led to a rise in general lawlessness and petty crime.

Only 53 per cent of the electorate bothered to turn out for the referendum. The propaganda put out by the government had predicted an 80 per cent turnout. The Election Commission of Thailand announced that 61 per cent of those who voted were in favour of the constitutional amendments. It will be the 20th Constitution that Thailand has had since 1932. A Constitution approved in 1997, after the Thai people took to the streets to overthrow a particularly brutal military regime, had guaranteed greater democratic and civil rights. But it became history after another military coup in 2006. Thai governments since then have been dominated by a military, bureaucratic and business nexus based in Bangkok. The rural poor, constituting the vast majority, have been left out of the equation.

It was the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck Shinawatra’s elder brother, that channelled the anger of the rural populace with its populist promises, and his party went on to win successive elections. In 2006, he became the first among the two siblings to be deposed by the military. In 2010, scores of his supporters were shot dead when they were protesting against the dismissal of another democratically elected government headed by one of Thaksin’'s proteges. The former Prime Minster has been in self-imposed exile, fearing arrest if he returns. The junta has dropped charges against those responsible for the 2010 massacre.

The new constitutional changes will effectively prevent any single party from gaining a majority through the ballot box. Also put to vote along with the charter was an amendment that will allow the armed forces to appoint all 250 members of the upper house, the Senate; the members will serve seven-year terms. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held next year. Whatever the outcome of those elections, under the new Constitution the army will call the shots, as the Senate will also participate in the vote to select a new Prime Minister. The new Constitution, according to a report from the International Federation of Human Rights, “will allow the military and its proxies to tighten their grip on power and cement their influence in political affairs”.

General Prayuth Chan-Ocha said last year that Thailand’s problems were caused “by too much democracy”. Yingluck Shinawatra, who is facing a trial for alleged corruption, expressed her disappointment after the results of the referendum were announced. She said that the country was “stepping backwards” by accepting a Constitution that was “not truly democratic”. Both the major parties, the Pheu Thai and the Democrat Party, publicly opposed the Constitution, stating that the document was fundamentally anti-democratic. There was virtually no civilian involvement in its drafting. The new Constitution justifies arbitrary detentions on the grounds that freedom of expression can be curtailed to maintain “public order or good morals of the people”.

In the last two years, the army has arrested many Thai citizens and a few foreigners on the grounds of lese-majesty—showing disrespect to their king. Any discussion on the future of the monarchy is viewed by the military as a threat to “national security”. Long prison sentences have been handed out to activists and scholars on charges of insulting the monarchy. Three people died in jail while being held on this charge. In fact, the politics of royal succession is playing a key role in the recent developments. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch, is 88 and ailing. He has been hospitalised for over a year. The Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is known to be close to Thaksin Shinawatra.

There is a lurking fear among the top military brass, the higher levels of the judiciary and the Bangkok elite that if the Crown Prince ascends the throne, he will not play according to the unwritten rules that have been in place since the 1930s. The influential Privy Council, which advises the King, is responsible for selecting the officers for the top military posts. There is a fear that the new King will pack the Privy Council with his own choices. And, unlike the current King, he may not give ready assent to the periodic coups the Thai military indulges in. However, the royal palace has a vested interest in the course of Thai politics as it is one of the biggest stakeholders in the economy.

The Barack Obama administration, which has, in a way, allowed the Thai military to ride roughshod over the people, has been forced to take notice after the promulgation of the new Constitution. The United States State Department, in its report on the human rights situation in Thailand, said that the military junta had imposed a Constitution “severely limiting civil liberties, including restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and the press”. The report went on to add that the security forces often abused human rights while enjoying “official immunity”. Washington was wary about openly criticising the junta fearing that Bangkok could tilt politically and economically towards Beijing. Yingluck Shinawatra’s government had established close economic ties with Beijing.

The U.S. government’s main focus is on the military “Pivot to the East” and the military encirclement of China. The U.S. and Thai militaries have had long-standing ties dating from the Cold War. Royal Thai Air Force bases are very important for the Pentagon’s “forward positioning” strategy. During the Vietnam War, most of the bombing missions took off from military bases in Thailand. It was the U.S. military that taught its Thai counterpart the counter-insurgency and psychological warfare tactics that are being put to use today. Until the early 1970s, the U.S. helped the Thai military hype up the communist threat in the region. It also helped the corrupt Thai military to continue with its stranglehold on the country. General Sanit Thamarat, the military ruler from 1957 to 1963, was a venal dictator. He is said to have made more than $100 million during his time in office.

A few days after the results of the referendum were announced, there were a series of bomb attacks targeting seven well-known sites, including Phuket and Hua Hin, frequented by foreign tourists. Four Thais were killed and seven foreigners wounded. General Prayuth Chan-Ocha was quick to blame the opposition for the attacks. He said that “some bad people” opposed to the Constitution were responsible for the acts. Many Thai and foreign experts on terrorism were, however, of the opinion that the operations had the signature style of the separatists in the south of the country. Muslim separatists have been carrying out coordinated bomb attacks for some years in the deep south. The most prominent insurgent group is the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front. The insurgency has claimed more than 7,000 lives since 2004. Voters in the Muslim-dominated areas of the south had rejected the new Constitution.

The opposition “Red Shirts” movement has been under close surveillance by the government. If they were involved in the attacks, it would have made better sense if the incidents had been timed with the referendum process. The Red Shirts have accused the military leadership of deliberately masterminding the latest attacks, saying that it was a ploy to continue indefinitely in power.

The bombings were obviously aimed at creating fear and adversely impacting Thailand’s lucrative tourism sector. Last year, a terror attack in Bangkok killed more than 20 people. The authorities had initially ruled out terrorism. It later emerged that Uighur terrorists were responsible for the blast in a Hindu temple frequented by foreigners. The political and economic stability the army leadership wants for the country may prove to be elusive as long as there is no popular participation.

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