Fame, money, power: constitution drafting in Thailand is a lucrative business. But those seeking fortune, should also recognise the risk.
In the land of 19 constitutions, drafting a charter is always a lucrative business. Nomination to a drafting commission ensures benefits in cash and in kind.
Beyond fame, each drafter receives a huge sum of money. The payment scheme is complex and the list of awards is long.
For example, the 2015 Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) members, who were drawn from the National Legislative Assembly, the National Reform Council (NRC), and the National Council for Peace and Orange (NCPO), received at least two sources of remuneration: salary for their regular jobs and a meeting allowance for the CDC’s meeting. The latter was not taxable.
Within less than a year, CDC members earned roughly over one million baht. But there were also other less obvious benefits such as luxurious free meals for every meeting and field trips to hold public hearings. The benefits are not limited to only a handful of persons nominated by the junta. As each appointee is allowed a few assistants, spoils going to their entourage as well.
These benefits last even after the draft becomes the supreme law of the land. Being able to paint themselves as experts, draftees can capitalise on their experience in books, talks, lectures, or teaching positions.
However, the most important long-term reward is an appointment to numerous non-elected public positions, such as the Senate, the National Counter-Corruption Commission, the Ombudsman, the National Human Rights Commission, the Election Commission and the Constitutional Court. The 2015 constitution draft broadened the opportunity by creating the Constitution Assessment Committee and the controversial Crisis Panel.
In return for lavish benefits, these constitutional experts helped boost the legitimacy of the draft constitution. This service is especially crucial in a time of a military rule, and when the drafting was carried away from the public gaze.
The job of constitution drafting really looks promising. The profit is great and, regardless of the democratic quality of the draft, it should always be accepted because the whole authoritarian regime works in unison.
While the charter draft could not claim legitimacy or popular support, it found a substitute in a form of expertise. The draft was prepared by people whose educational background and “intelligence” were considered superior to the majority of Thais.
So the rejection of the 2015 constitution draft on Sunday came as a shock to these experts.
They delivered the best service by introducing the controversial Crisis Panel, the non-MP Prime Minister, and a permanent revocation of political rights. All of these features help the junta extend its control over Thai society.
They also rigorously justified their actions as necessary for Thailand to transition to a full-blown democracy in the future.
However, the draft failed to convince even the moderate conservatives within the NRC that it would bring peace and stability as the junta had once promised. The junta suddenly abandoned its plan and ordered the NRC to reject the draft. This decision exposed experts to barrage of mockery and humiliation from the anti-coup faction.
Perhaps this rejection marks the downfall of constitutional experts.
The drafting business is no longer promising since the public can see it through. Under their cloak of expertise, lay desires for fame, money, and power similar to politicians upon whom they usually look down. The next round of drafting will require as much, if not more, popular acceptance as technocratic knowledge.
The junta now has up to 30 days to appoint the new CDC. Observers of Thai politics are excited to see the list of names. Will some old faces return?
There is no restriction to re-appointing the former CDC but last Sunday’s vote was a great embarrassment to people of such revered status. Some of them publicly announced that they would no longer be involved in any drafting.
Since these experts have been around the Thai political arena for a few decades, the junta has almost exhausted the list of potential experts. The situation has become more critical as public dissent is growing, and so is international pressure. The next six months will be rough and challenging.
Certainly, there will be new blood coming in to fill the gaps. The new generation of legal scholars, academics, economists, political scientists and other technocrats is looking for an opportunity to rise.
They should be wary. What seems like a goldmine could easily turn into their graveyard.
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a constitutional law scholar in Thailand.