Junta learned lessons from Myanmar’s transition to civil rule, writing a constitution that secured its grip on nation’s destiny
Thailand voted on March 24, apparently towards democracy, but it was completely framed by the military rulers. The Army has staged at least a dozen coups since 1932, the latest in 2014. However, when the military marches from barracks into politics, the result can do no good either for people or for democracy.
For damning evidence we need only look next door at Myanmar. Thailand’s poorer neighbour experienced military rule for half a century up until 2011. The 2015 elections, the first national poll since 1990, were hailed as a milestone in Myanmar’s history. But the celebrations were premature.
Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from the presidency, under a constitution that also tilted the political playing field strongly against her National League for Democracy (NLD) and other political parties, in favour of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). The goalposts had been shifted to ensure the military stayed in the game whether voters liked it or not.
Under the military-drafted 2008 constitution, Myanmar’s parliament is made up of two houses. The upper house has 224 seats, and the lower has 440 seats. But 25 per cent of these seats are reserved for the military. The same proportion goes to the military in the Regional Assemblies and State Assemblies.
Thus, in Myanmar, with military-appointed MPs already on its side, USDP needs just one-third of the remaining seats to secure a majority. In contrast, any other party must secure two-thirds to win a majority.
Back to today’s Thailand. When Thai military rulers scripted the Constitution in 2017, they inevitably took inspiration from their neighbour, along with a dose of caution from Myanmar’s experience. General Prayut Chan-o-cha claimed the power seizure in 2014 was necessary to end the decade-old political turmoil in Thailand. The royalist-military elite were also keen to cripple the red-shirt movement loyal to ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They were supposedly on a great mission to fix the country’s political system so that the Army would not have to intervene again. Now, after five years, General Prayut is in no mood to return to barracks – political power is far too attractive for the incumbent PM.
The 2017 charter divided the Thai Parliament into two houses. The lower house has 500 elected representatives, while the Senate has 250 military appointees. However, all 750 members of Parliament will vote to select the next prime minister, who needs the support of 376 members.
Assuming that all 250 senators vote for General Prayut, he will need only 126 votes from the lower house, or just over 25 per cent. On the other hand, any other camp would need 376 of the 500 votes, or more than 75 per cent. Thai military rulers appear to have learned from Myanmar that appointing 25 per cent of parliament is not enough for the military to grab power; Suu Kyi’s party has indeed managed to gain the required majority of 67 per cent elected seats. Thai rulers thus fixed more seats in their own favour, and hence escalated that requirement for the other political parties a bit to make it 75 per cent.
And General Prayut, with his newly formed Phalang Pracharath Party, can easily retain power as prime minister, after engineering a new political system that stifles the influence of parties not aligned with the military. However, Thailand is likely heading towards an era of fragile coalitions era, where the military will continue to dominate every function of the government through the 250-member appointed Senate and the newly created National Strategy Board. The latter will ensure that future administrations adhere to the military’s 20-year national masterplan.
Thailand looks to be following the path taken by Myanmar, where the government is apparently run by Suu Kyi’s NLD, but the presence of the military is always felt.
Thai supporters of junta rule point out that 61 per cent of voters endorsed the 2017 constitution in a 2016 referendum. However, did the Thai people do it with proper understanding of the guided democracy that was envisaged? Very few voters saw a copy of the draft constitution and its 279 articles before going to the polling stations. And in the absence of proper debate on the opposing view, voters only heard the drafters’ argument – that it would address political corruption and help reform the country. It is clear that people endorse important socio-political issues in referendums without understanding the consequences at all. This happened in Britain with Brexit, and it happened in Thailand too.
Some Western media believe Thailand is heading towards a hybrid- or semi-democracy. I disagree. Democracy is the institutionalisation of freedom; it is “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Democracy can’t be established with a bayonet in one hand. Where Thailand is heading after its election is nowhere close to democracy. We can at most call it post-military rule, which looks all set to dictate Thailand for at least a few more decades. Thai people are destined for more hard struggle if they want to resurrect the phoenix of democracy from the current situation.
Atanu Biswas is professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata.