No scheme to stay on will ever make Prayuth legitimate
Can the expected referendum on whether to allow the military regime of General Prayuth Chan-Ocha to stay for two more years “legitimize” the government?
Some say yes, as they argue that this time, unlike in the coup Prayuth forced on people last year, the electorate will have a say through a plebiscite instead of obeying the guns and orders of coup makers.
Many have already decided to give a blank check to the military strongman and leader of the National Council for Peace and Order — who later chose himself to become prime minister for an almost indefinite period to run the country and ensure that the Thaksin-Yingluck Shinawatra clique would be annihilated.
Nevertheless, gaining a “mandate” through the referendum would be a very sweet move for the regime that’s still regarded as less acceptable than an elected administration by some foreign states. After all, if endorsed through a referendum, Prayuth can finally say people have granted him a mandate.
‘A twisted and fraudulent referendum
It’s a twisted and fraudulent referendum at best, however, because the current situation is definitely not conducive to a free and fair plebiscite.
First, there’s the ongoing ban on political gatherings of five or more people. According to iLaw, a non-government organization specializing in legal reform and humanrights figures, at least 72 meetings and symposiums have been banned or intervened in for the past 12 months.
Given that, how can one truly expect people to articulate critically together and deliberate the choices in order to make a genuinely informed decision?
If this were an election, it would be akin to one that the opposition parties could compete in but could not campaign publicly.
Second, one should consider how farcical is the origin of the process. The very people selling the idea of a referendum on whether to allow a junta leader to stay on are members of the National Reform Council (NRC) and the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) who were installed by Prayuth the junta leader to begin with. Conflict of interest doesn’t seem to bother some Thais or Prayuth, however.
Third, the main question on the referendum — besides whether to allow Prayuth to stay on or not — would be whether one rejects or accepts the junta-sponsored draft charter. If the answer is no, then Prayuth automatically stays on to oversee a new drafting process. If the answer is yes, then people get the junta-sponsored draft charter, which is deeply flawed in the eyes of those who support democracy.
Very Limited Choice
Either way, the choice is like choosing between two brands of cola.
If a coup is compared to a situation where armed men seize control of a house that belongs to everyone, then the referendum is like the gun-slinging armed occupiers asking the other occupants whether they would like to have them stay on or not.
The truth is, legitimacy cannot be attained through the barrels of guns or the use of force and coercion. Legitimacy can never be attained by silencing millions. Yes, Prayuth is likely to stay on for two more years if not longer, one way or the other, but no scheme can ever make him legitimate in the eyes of Thais who cherish freedom and democracy.
Ill-gotten wealth, no matter how long you keep it or how hard you try to launder it, remains illegitimate. Stolen power, like stolen money, will remain what it is no matter what. Lee Jae-min is an associate professor of law at Seoul National University.