The vainglorious constitutional quest of a junta UNDER STRESS

opinion May 28, 2015 01:00



Last week’s conciliatory announcement by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) that citizens will have the opportunity to either reject or consent to a new constitution is unconvincing as a show of democratic intent. 

One year on from the military coup of May 22, the country remains fundamentally divided as to whether we should even attempt a return to democracy. 
What will be the consequences of this seemingly intractable social-political predicament for Thailand?
Growing signs of equivocation in the junta indicate that the intent remains to press ahead with its imperatives for a new constitution – whether or not a referendum is, in the end, held. The protracted pretence would then be over, and with it, any semblance of credibility among those who ache for more tangible democratic foundations.
The various “yeas” and “nays” that continually emerge from the junta and its subordinate institutions – only to be followed by more dashed hopes for Thailand’s democratic progress – only risk further alienating the now tantalised voters-in-waiting. It is also worrisome that this protracted Thai impasse contains so many echoes of our pre-democratic and authoritarian eras of history.
All the while, voices from the international community – including the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Japan – have remained resolute in their insistence that Thailand must return power to its people through an open and democratic election. The resulting economic pressure being brought to bear on Thailand makes the options for its leadership that much more stark.
So it seems strange that a leadership whose declared intent is to forge a successful transition towards democracy is so unenthusiastic about the opportunity to establish democratic norms. 
Such a discrepancy only further undermines the credibility of this Thai leadership among critics both in Thailand and beyond.
Despite a new timeline that suggests democratic elections could be held soon as late next year, delays in ratifying the new constitution indicate Thailand is unlikely to attain democratic normalcy anytime soon. Nevertheless, the current draft of what is intended to be the 19th Thai constitution is still being determinedly scrutinised by citizens as they look for ways to assert their voices as Thailand’s stakeholders-at-large.
It is thus becoming incumbent on all sides to recognise the importance of an open civil society as a means of promoting constructive dialogue, learn the value of cooperation, and make reasonable concessions as part of an undertaking to bridge Thailand’s pernicious societal divide.
Without a greater general sense of reason and flexibility, it is likely to matter little whether the question of the constitution is settled via a supposedly exhaustive redrafting, or through a disjointed series of amendments. Thai history indicates that any such result will be thoroughly unsatisfactory and unworkable.
Provincial Thais, especially those from the North and Northeast, remain the scapegoats of choice over Thailand’s continuing ills. Both the emerging urban middle class and the establishment continue to make the most of any opportunity to characterise the rural poor as “uneducated” and “self-serving”.
Disenfranchised rural Thais
“The drafting of a constitution is not my job, I am only a rural person. What I say doesn’t mean anything to anyone. I want the constitution to work for us [people within his village], but we’re not part of it. Only people in the city or Bangkok can say what they want, not us [rural people].” 
These are the words of a rural Thai voter, who wished to remain anonymous, living by the Mekong River on the Thailand-Laos border in Khong Chiam district, Ubon Ratchathani province.
His words are profound because they convey a simple, clear and direct truth that withstands the inane stereotyping to which rural Isaan (northeastern) Thais are routinely subjected. They also undermine the convoluted rationalising of those who would seek to contrive reasons for why a population that is already among the most marginalised should be continually disregarded and disenfranchised.
Fortunately for Thailand, the question of the correlation between educational attainment and the right to vote was also raised by political philosopher John Stuart Mill: “I regard it as wholly inadmissible that any person should participate in the suffrage [have voting rights] without being able to read, write and, I will add, perform the common operations of arithmetic.” In other words, the attainment of basic literacy was his simple prerequisite for access to the ballot box.
Even though Mill was not advocating voting rights for all, he was in favour of more inclusion. And this was in the context of a still rather undemocratic 19th-century Britain, where women did not have the right to vote, and an era far removed from our own 21st-century information age. It was also at a time when only about three-quarters of the British population had attained basic literacy – a figure now exceeded by the Thailand of today.
Most Thais, wherever they live, now enjoy increased access to information, in one way or another. The fact that even remote rural areas of Thailand can sometimes have better Internet access than urban areas is acting to support greater critical thinking among the rural population. The stereotypes of irredeemably naive or ignorant rural citizens are becoming more and more outdated, and more politically untenable.
Historically, a common argument made against Thai liberal democracy is that Thailand is not ready because the people are “not well-educated”. This mentality is reflected in the main arguments of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee in 2013 and 2014, during the build-up to the coup. We could characterise these as the “never-quite-ready-yet” arguments of Thai political rhetoric.
Mill’s Britain never did adopt a written constitution. But post-revolutionary France and America did go in that direction, making significant social-political advances in the meantime, as their emerging democratic systems adapted and evolved even amid the inevitable ups and the downs. In contrast, Thailand’s hesitant and unconvincing stop-start attempts at democracy are evidence of its own failures – and the fallout is its plight.
Democracy means inclusivity 
Ultimately, the value that a political system places on inclusiveness is a key indicator of democratic progress. 
Thai leadership must now recognise this fact by holding a free, fair and open constitutional referendum, followed by bona fide democratic elections. After all, the Constitutional Drafting Committee, which operates under the authority of the NCPO, has repeatedly highlighted, that: “[The] citizen is the centre of this constitution, where power is in the hands of the citizen.”
For the Thai junta to summarily declare that a “perfect” constitution has now been drafted – after 18 failed and jettisoned “attempts” – is an incredible claim. In a country where groundless, bombastic public rhetoric has been the order of the day for so long, is there any good reason why such claims should be regarded favourably this time around?
TITIPOL PHAKDEEWANICH is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick, in the UK. He is based at Ubon Ratchathani University.