Has the August referendum cemented the Thai public’s approval of a military government?
On August 7, Thailand held the long-awaited referendum on its draft constitution. While the junta claims that the proposed constitution will usher in an era of peace and stability, critics argue that it will only serve to formally entrench the military’s iron rule over Thai society. The electorate finally approved the draft constitution, with unofficial results showing that 61.4% voted in favor, with a turnout of only 59%.
In the run-up to the referendum, the military government under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha banned campaigns against the constitution and suppressed public discussion of its contents by implementing strict regulations against what was vaguely defined as “rude opinions.” In April, Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej also approved a law that declared individuals who committed transgressions were punishable for up to 10 years in prison.
The newly approved constitution also introduces a new electoral system. Formerly a mixed member majoritarian system (MMM), it will now be a mixed member apportionment system (MMA) designed to redistribute the electoral power away from Pheu Thai Party (PTP), the party of ousted Prime Ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. Simulations ran under MMA with the previous election’s results showed a marked decrease in the PTP’s fortunes and the elevation of several smaller parties, thus making it more difficult to form stable coalition governments.
What’s more, the members of the senate will be appointed by the military, and an “independent” commission filled with junta-appointed personnel will be in charge of overseeing the policies and moral conduct of politicians. At the same time, restrictions on the media are expected to tighten even further, according to the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA). The organization argued that the constitution “provides the state with potentially more power to intervene on press freedom and freedom of expression,” calling the new constitution a “regression” compared to the 2007 constitution with regard to freedom of the press.
Once these changes have been fully implemented, the lingering influence of Thaksin will be all but upended. Thaksin himself stated that the “drafters … created a constitution for the ‘continuity’ of the absolute power of the present coup makers to continue even after the new constitution is proclaimed,” thereby epitomizing the criticisms of the constitution and the junta’s maneuvering. But the successful referendum has paved the way for the general election slated to take place in 2017, as the outcome has contributed to the legitimization of the junta’s rule.
Invitation to Rule
It is no wonder then that analysts are openly discussing the possibility that Prayuth Chan-ocha might stand in the forthcoming elections and emulate the so-called “Prem model,” named after General Prem Tinsulanonda, who was prime minister between 1980 and 1988.
The Prem model is essentially an archaic system of governance based on the idea that a perceived threat needs to be countered by the government with “a semblance of democracy, to provide an open channel for inclusiveness of differences in opinion, while maintaining stability through a strong military presence and decisiveness.” When the parties are not able to form functioning blocs to rule—as the constitution now intends—the generals would be “invited” to step up to run the government and maintain order.
However, Colonel Piyapong Klinpan, spokesman for the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO), spared no time to deny that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is harboring such plans, or that of aiming to establish his own military-backed political party. Instead, the colonel insisted that Prayuth sought merely to resolve Thailand’s problems, but kept quiet as to whether the prime minister will be seeking any unelected official role in the next government.
Nevertheless, such vague assurances cannot invalidate the mounting body of evidence indicating that Prayuth might indeed stand after all. To begin with, there is the fact that the new party system favors political instability and deadlock as the PTP and Democrats are unlikely to form a majority and establish a working coalition, which in turn could justify the appointment of an unelected prime minister.
Furthermore, members of the leading junta have used the recent spate of synchronized bombings in Thailand that killed four people to discredit and ostracize democratic parties. While not directly accused, suspicions are subtly aimed at the PTP and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (Red Shirts), despite the fact that the blasts seem to follow the modus operandi of Muslim separatists active in Thailand’s south.
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According to Panitan Wattanayagorn, security adviser to the defense minister, General Prawit Wongsuwan, military intelligence agencies had observed an unusually high amount of activity from PTP loyalists ahead of the referendum with the intent of destabilizing the vote. In response, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched police complaints against those junta elements that accuse him of being behind the deadly attacks.
All is Not Lost
However, the military’s strong hand can also be traced back to the venal office holding mores of previous governments, which have managed to discredit the legitimacy of democratic rule. Faced with a choice between the corrupt figures of the past and the human rights abusing ways of the junta, many Thais chose the latter.
Indeed, the 2014 coup was preceded by huge protests against the government of Yingluck Shinawatra. What’s more, the upcoming royal transition, brought upon by the poor health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is bound to proceed in a smoother manner with the military at the helm.
Even if the new charter severely undermines the democratic process, it could also be an opportunity for the Thai political class to do some soul searching, unite around a common enemy (the junta) and restore the electorate’s trust in civilian institutions. Thailand might even emerge stronger after the 2017 elections.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Aximander