A vi­cious cy­cle of coups and con­sti­tu­tions

The Myanmar Times - - News | Views - DAVID CAMROUX news­room@mm­times.com

AT first glance, there may be some­thing unique in the Thai mil­i­tary junta seek­ing to have its ac­tion and pro­gram le­git­imised through ap­proval by ref­er­en­dum of a some­what un­demo­cratic con­sti­tu­tion. Yet, in other ways – from a long-, medium- and short-term per­spec­tive – this is in con­ti­nu­ity with the politi­cal tra­jec­tory of modern Thai­land since the end of the ab­so­lute monar­chy in 1932.

Thai­land’s se­cond mil­i­tary coup in 1932 suc­ceeded where the first of 1912 failed be­cause the mil­i­tary leader, Phi­bun Son­gram, al­lied him­self with a West­ern-ed­u­cated lib­eral (and repub­li­can?), Pribi Banamy­ong, to found a politi­cal party, the Peo­ple’s Party, giv­ing a demo­cratic ve­neer to his play for power.

How­ever, within this du­umvi­rate the con­tra­dic­tion be­tween two sources of le­git­i­mate rule re­mained un­re­solved: one was new, namely rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy through the ballot box, and the other linked to the an­cien regime, that of the rule of vir­tu­ous men. Seen within the longue durée, the past 84 years can be de­scribed as the search for an ap­pro­pri­ate mode of gov­er­nance for the Thai na­tion.

This sit­u­a­tion is not un­usual. Af­ter all, it was only some 80 or so years af­ter the French Rev­o­lu­tion with the found­ing of the Third Repub­lic that a re­turn to ab­so­lute monar­chi­cal rule be­came un­think­able.

As ex­plained by Chai-Anan Sa­mu­da­vanija, what nev­er­the­less is unique in the Thai case is that 1932 was first in the vi­cious cir­cles of coups, in­terim con­sti­tu­tions, per­ma­nent (sic) con­sti­tu­tions, elec­tions and protests lead­ing to fur­ther coups. The coup of May 2014 was the sixth in this se­ries.

The draft con­sti­tu­tion pro­posed for ap­proval in the ref­er­en­dum yes­ter­day will be the 21st or 22nd since 1932 – some­thing of a world record. How­ever, when con­sti­tu­tions, with an av­er­age shelf-life of ap­prox­i­mately four years, are treated as dis­pos­able nap­pies, is it any won­der that the no­tion it­self of a con­sti­tu­tional or­der and the rule of law in Thai­land be­comes prob­lem­atic, a sit­u­a­tion ex­ac­er­bated by the politi­ci­sa­tion of in­de­pen­dent re­fer­ring bodies such as the Supreme Court?

The ref­er­en­dum was an at­tempt to show that this time, this con­sti­tu­tion is re­ally per­ma­nent. Alas, un­like the Peo­ple’s Con­sti­tu­tion of 1997 – the most trans­par­ent and pro­gres­sive – which was the re­sult of pub­lic de­bate and the fruit of a largely rep­re­sen­ta­tive Con­stituent As­sem­bly, this se­cond draft has not been the sub­ject of de­bate. Nor, more im­por­tantly, is there a sense of “own­er­ship” even, it would ap­pear, among those in Bangkok such as in the Democrat Party, who sup­ported the mil­i­tary coup of 2014.

If this is the case why is the mil­i­tary even both­er­ing to or­gan­ise the ref­er­en­dum?

Here we en­ter a num­ber of midterm con­sid­er­a­tions. In or­gan­is­ing the ref­er­en­dum, the mil­i­tary regime is at­tempt­ing to draw from the lessons learned from the 2006 coup that over­threw Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra.

From the mil­i­tary per­spec­tive, in 2006 they failed to con­sol­i­date and le­git­imise their con­trol, for within a year af­ter the pro­mul­ga­tion of yet an­other con­sti­tu­tion Thaksin’s party un­der an­other name, and with his sis­ter Yingluck as prime min­is­ter, was back in gov­ern­ment.

This time around Gen­eral Prayuth Chan-o-cha is tak­ing no chances.

In­cluded in the draft pro­vi­sions are that for the first five years, the present gov­ern­ing Na­tional Coun­cil for Peace and Or­der se­lects nearly all mem­bers of the up­per house in­clud­ing six seats re­served for the se­cu­rity forces and that a non-lower house mem­ber can be­come prime min­is­ter. Fur­ther­more, fu­ture mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion will be le­galised in ad­vance.

More­over, as Allen Hicken has ex­plained, in­tro­duc­ing multi-mem­ber con­stituen­cies will mean it will be very dif­fi­cult for one politi­cal party to have a ma­jor­ity of seats in the lower house. As Jim Glass­man has shown, from the roy­al­ist-na­tion­al­ist per­spec­tive, one of the “evils” of the 1997 con­sti­tu­tion was that it led, for the first time in Thai his­tory, to a politi­cal party, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai, hav­ing a ma­jor­ity in par­lia­ment in its own right.

The new draft will mean a re­turn to the sta­tus quo ante (the quiet be­fore the war) of weak coali­tion gov­ern­ments al­low­ing the pub­lic ser­vice with their mil­i­tary and busi­ness com­pradors the max­i­mum politi­cal space.

Fi­nally, from a short-term per­spec­tive, the ref­er­en­dum can be seen as an ex­er­cise in politi­cal theatre to tide Thai­land over as it en­ters a pe­riod of po­ten­tial tur­moil with an im­pend­ing royal suc­ces­sion.

The coun­try’s roy­al­ist-na­tion­al­ist es­tab­lish­ment is in a bind of its own mak­ing. Hav­ing el­e­vated the monar­chy to the po­si­tion as the key­stone of the Thai na­tion it now must cope with the un­think­able: The crown prince, as re­cent im­ages em­a­nat­ing from Mu­nich at­test, ap­pears man­i­festly unfit to take on the man­tle of the dham­maraja to be be­queathed by his fa­ther, King Bhu­mi­bol.

The draft con­sti­tu­tion pro­posed for ap­proval will be the 21st or 22nd since 1932.

To con­clude, it is ques­tion­able whether Thai vot­ers will ef­fec­tively dis­en­fran­chise them­selves, given that the draft con­sti­tu­tion will mean the cre­ation of a largely ap­pointed par­lia­ment and le­gal pre­rog­a­tives for the mil­i­tary to con­tin­u­ally in­ter­vene in Thai politi­cal life.

Even if a con­sti­tu­tional draft – that is not only op­posed by the two main politi­cal par­ties, Pheu Thai and the Democrats, but on which no politi­cal de­bate has been al­lowed – re­ceives ma­jor­ity sup­port among those Thais who bother to vote, it is doubt­ful whether this will pro­vide the Thai mil­i­tary junta and part of the roy­al­na­tion­al­ist elite with the demo­cratic unc­tion it seeks.

On the con­trary, the ref­er­en­dum will not be a cel­e­bra­tion of na­tional unity but one that glosses over the re­gional, class and ide­o­log­i­cal di­vi­sions within the king­dom.

These I sus­pect will come to the fore with the death of King Bhu­mi­bol, once the painful mo­ment of the royal suc­ces­sion comes, as it in­evitably must.

David Camroux is a res­i­dent se­nior as­so­ciate at the Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, Sciences Po in Paris and, from Septem­ber 1, pro­fes­so­rial fel­low at the Viet­nam Na­tional Univer­sity, Hanoi.

Photo: AFP

Peo­ple regis­ter to vote at a polling sta­tion be­fore cast­ing their bal­lots in the con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum in Thai­land’s north­east­ern prov­ince of Buri­ram yes­ter­day.

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