An­drew MacGre­gor Mar­shall on how Thai­land's new con­si­tu­tion helps the junta dress up dic­ta­tor­ship as democ­racy

Re­ject­ing the lessons of his­tory, Thai­land’s rulers are do­ing ev­ery­thing in their power to stop the peo­ple from choos­ing who con­trols their coun­try

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - Opin­ion by An­drew MacGre­gor Mar­shall

AS Thai­land cel­e­brated the Songkran new year fes­ti­val last month with rau­cous wa­ter fights and trips to tem­ples, Bangkok res­i­dents dis­cov­ered that an im­por­tant piece of their his­tory had mys­te­ri­ously gone miss­ing.

For decades, a small bronze plaque set into the paving stones of Royal Plaza has marked the spot where, on 24 June 1932, a group of Thai of­fi­cials and mil­i­tary of­fi­cers an­nounced that they had seized power to over­throw the ab­so­lute monar­chy.

It was the birth of democ­racy in Thai­land. The king learned of the revo­lu­tion while golf­ing at his sea­side hol­i­day palace in Hua Hin, and re­turned to Bangkok to for­mally ac­cept the de­mands of the rebels and agree to be bound by a con­sti­tu­tion – Thai­land’s first. The King­dom was evolv­ing like most coun­tries do as they de­velop and be­come more open to the world. Ab­so­lute monar­chies tend to get swept away, re­placed by regimes with some de­gree of democ­racy.

But in Thai­land the roy­al­ists have never ac­cepted the end of the ab­so­lute monar­chy, and the royals have never ac­cepted they should just be­come fig­ure­heads. The strug­gle did not end in 1932. It still hasn’t ended to­day.

On 4 April, tents were erected over the bronze plaque in Bangkok. Some time shortly af­ter­wards, prob­a­bly on 5 April, the sym­bolic marker was re­moved and re­placed with an­other bear­ing roy­al­ist slo­gans. It is in­con­ceiv­able that the old plaque could have been stolen with­out the knowl­edge of the author­i­ties. Royal Plaza is sur­rounded by nu­mer­ous mil­i­tary,

Prime Min­is­ter Prayuth Chanocha and his al­lies use the theatrics of ref­er­en­dums and elec­tions when it suits them, but they are pro­foundly op­posed to true democ­racy and the free­doms that go with it”

po­lice and palace buildings and is con­stantly monitored.

The tim­ing was sig­nif­i­cant. The day af­ter the plaque was re­placed, on 6 April, King Va­ji­ra­longkorn for­mally signed a new con­sti­tu­tion drafted by the junta, in an elab­o­rate palace cer­e­mony heavy with sym­bol­ism. Va­ji­ra­longkorn, flanked by the army and po­lice chiefs, handed Thai­land’s pros­trat­ing prime min­is­ter a copy of the con­sti­tu­tion that had been writ­ten on parchment by the royal scribes. The mes­sage was that the con­sti­tu­tion was a per­sonal gift from the king.

The new char­ter is a blue­print for dic­ta­tor­ship dressed up as democ­racy. The junta is try­ing to achieve an out­come sim­i­lar to Singapore, where reg­u­lar elec­tions are held but the rul­ing oli­garchy re­mains in con­trol re­gard­less. In­fu­ri­ated by the ten­dency of vot­ers to sup­port the po­lit­i­cal prox­ies of ex­iled ty­coon Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra when­ever they get a chance, the junta and its roy­al­ist elite back­ers have emas­cu­lated par­lia­ment and en­sured it will be dom­i­nated by an un­elected se­nate packed with gen­er­als and roy­al­ists.

One of the most re­spected Thai po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a pro­fes­sor at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity, is a mem­ber of the Thai elite, and tends to adopt con­ser­va­tive – and care­ful – po­si­tions. But he is scathing about the new con­sti­tu­tion, call­ing it “a throw­back to Thai­land’s un­demo­cratic past based on an en­gi­neered leg­is­la­ture that gives the 250-mem­ber mil­i­tary-ap­pointed Se­nate lat­i­tude to hold the elected Lower House in check”.

To give the con­sti­tu­tion a su­per­fi­cial ve­neer of demo­cratic le­git­i­macy, a ref­er­en­dum was held in Au­gust last year. Cam­paign­ing for a “No” vote was banned, and Thais were bom­barded with re­lent­less pro­pa­ganda. De­spite this, only 61% voted “Yes” on a low turnout.

The whole process de­scended into farce this year when it emerged that Va­ji­ra­longkorn was re­fus­ing to en­dorse the char­ter de­spite the fact that Thai vot­ers had al­ready ap­proved it. He de­manded two key changes: re­mov­ing an at­tempt to di­lute the power of the king in a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis; and also the need to ap­point a re­gent to reign on his be­half when over­seas, de­spite Va­ji­ra­longkorn spend­ing much of his time in Mu­nich.

The mes­sage to Thais from all of this is clear. Prime Min­is­ter Prayuth Chan-ocha and his al­lies use the theatrics of ref­er­en­dums and elec­tions when it suits them, but they are pro­foundly op­posed to true democ­racy and the free­doms that go with it. Tear­ing out the 1932 com­mem­o­ra­tion plaque spoke much louder than words.

Words are con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous in 21stcen­tury Thai­land. On the same day that it be­came widely known that the plaque had been re­moved, the Thai junta is­sued an ex­tra­or­di­nary state­ment or­der­ing all Thais to cease fol­low­ing three prom­i­nent junta crit­ics on so­cial me­dia – ex­iled aca­demics Som­sak Jeam­teerasakul and Pavin Chachavalpong­pun, and me.

It was an or­der with no clear le­gal ba­sis, and it had the pre­dictable ef­fect of en­cour­ag­ing many more Thais to fol­low us. But it was part of a pat­tern. With the re­moval of the com­mem­o­ra­tion plaque, the re­pres­sive new con­sti­tu­tion and the clumsy at­tempts to si­lence crit­ics, the junta is try­ing to drag Thai­land back­wards to an au­thor­i­tar­ian era in which the peo­ple are ex­pected to be obe­di­ent sub­jects rather than em­pow­ered cit­i­zens.

It won’t work. It takes more than rip­ping out an old plaque to make Thais stop car­ing about democ­racy. The tragedy of mod­ern Thai­land is that the junta ap­pears not to un­der­stand this, and in­stead of peace­ful evo­lu­tion, the King­dom faces the grow­ing like­li­hood of even­tual vi­o­lent strug­gle. As Thitinan warns, the fu­ture por­tends “tur­moil and con­flict”. This is what hap­pens when the lessons of his­tory are ig­nored.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cambodia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.