The appointment of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) members marks the end of absolute dictatorship and the beginning of democratization. The military’s ruthless power will be civilized by sharing it with other bodies created by the Interim Charter. Instead of the junta’s order, laws must now be passed by representatives of the people.
But in the past, elections only produced an incompetent and captured parliament. Politicians are propagandists who rarely know anything about a bill pending before them. Their decision is not made in accordance with public interest, but rather for the chance of being re-elected. As a result, they will avoid any bills which might hurt their popularity. Votes are dictated by leaders of political parties and those who finance them. However, an election provides the state a source of legitimacy as a democratic parliament could claim itself as a place where representatives of the people meet and debate how to distribute wealth and govern the nation. Thus, the drafters of the Interim Charter were facing a dilemma of how to design an NLA where independent experts are recruited and still represent the people. If the junta believes that elections do not work, it must replace elections with another form of representation.
The result is the non-partisan National Legislative Assembly of no more than 220 members appointed by the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO). The NCPO handpicked them from six different sectors: public sector, private sector, civic sector, academic sector, professional sector, and other sectors useful for the Assembly’s operation. Any member of a political party up to three years prior to the appointment is ineligible. Although an exact ratio is not specified, the Charter mandates the NCPO to take into consideration diversity of appointees. The junta’s head of law and justice taskforce, General Piboon Khumchaya, also confirmed that the NCPO would select people from all professions and political spectrums. Ideally, the National Assembly would have been comprised of senior bureaucrats, businessmen, social activists, professors, and other technocrats, all of whom represent different interest groups in Thai society.
In addition to a legislative function, an NLA has limited role in reinforcing accountability of the cabinet. The Assembly chooses a prime minister but cannot remove the prime minister unless the NCPO proposes it. A minister may reserve his right to testify before the Assembly under the claim of national security and the Assembly cannot cast a vote of no confidence against a member of the cabinet.
The message is clear, that layperson’s wisdom is not to be trusted. An election can be rigged because voters can be bought. So the NCPO has resorted to the lesser evil of confidential appointment. And let us hope that technocratic wisdom can compensate for the undemocratic shortcoming. Let us hope that the junta is not lobbied or bribed. Let us hope that the NLA is well balanced and our interests shall be duly protected by our representative.
But when the NCPO read the names of the NLA members a week after the enactment of the Interim Charter, the public was disappointed. The list was comprised of three categories: the military, the bureaucrats, and the PDRC supporters. Out of 200 members, 105 were from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Ministry of Defense. Cronyism is obvious. A younger brother of Prayuth, General Preecha Chan-Ocha, was appointed, as were his friends from the cadet school. A close-aide of Prem Tinnasulanont, the Chairman of the Privy Council, is in too.
Other members of the Assembly are senior bureaucrats. Although some are prominent lawyers from the Council of State and the Administrative Court, others are just unheard of. Their contribution to the NLA is doubtful. Furthermore, positions were given to the PDRC supporters who had joined in toppling Yingluck and inviting the coup: former senators, presidents of public universities, as well as regular speakers at PDRC protests. The daughter of Field Marshall Thanom Kittikajorn, the dictator who had ordered a massacre of university students in 1973, was also chosen. She is infamous for rigorously defending military intervention. Ironically, the strong believers of undemocratic change of regime are teaching the country democracy.
It is obvious that the junta failed to observe the constitutional mandate of maintaining diversity. The NLA offers neither a glimpse of expertise nor representation. Not only does it fail to recruit capable legislators, but also fails to include all interest groups. The NCPO took the NLA membership as a personal gift, awarding it to their relatives, classmates, and subordinates, all of whom would help protect the military’s status quo or even maximize it. Prayuth has just been appointed the Prime Minister. There was little doubt that the NLA would not vote for their patron, friends, and brothers. The Assembly thus becomes a family business, the same allegation that tainted the Yingluck administration. Compared to the National Assembly of 2006, the 2006 Assembly appears more professional as the junta recruited mostly prominent experts from the fields of law, political science, as well as business and civil society. Scholars and activists sat alongside bureaucrats and businesspeople. Noticeably fewer soldiers were selected. Therefore it received considerably higher public approval.
Moreover, the NLA appears aged, indicating that those who prepared the list knew only a dying network of retirees. There are soldiers and civil servants who have not been active for a long time. The oldest is 89, too frail even to show up without assistance. One could not help but wonder how those who have already been lost in time will drive Thailand forward.
Perhaps the junta did not care much about the capability of the NLA members since they are a mere rubberstamp of the junta’s policies. Statutes are prepared by administrative agencies and expected to be passed without a fierce debate. But the NCPO might not realize that greater diversity of the NLA would help the reconciliation process. For the next one year, the NLA will decide several key issues such as tax, healthcare, land use, education, election, or even lese majeste, all of which are subjects of great controversy. If representatives of all classes, regions, and beliefs meet and discuss their concerns, products of the NLA would gain more legitimacy and tensions would be lessened. The divisions in Thailand are deep, and ignoring different voices in the society will not help heal that rift.
Worse, as soon as the NLA members were appointed, they started discussing the possibility of impeachment of Yingluck and legislators from her party. An impeachment sounds odd as they are no longer in power. But, according to a guideline for the new constitution, that would permanently ban them from being involved in political activities in the future. Such bullying attempts would not help de-polarize the country at all. When seats are offered to only nemeses of the Shinawatra regime but no representative of pro-Thaksin or liberal movements are invited, clearly, this Assembly is not for reconciliation. It is the council of the winner. And the winners take it all.
Theoretically the appointment of the NLA is a good sign that the military is returning the power to the people, although not fully democratic. However, the disproportionate number of military men suggests the likelihood of conflict of interests and other irregularities in the foreseeable future. The selection of members was obviously biased. Only those from the elite establishment and anti-Thaksin groups were given a seat. The NLA has caused resentment among the public and brought contempt to itself, undermining the legitimacy of this Assembly and hindering the reconciliation process, something that is much-needed for Thailand.
Prayuth could have shown the public his sincerity and competence to lead Thailand out of its stalemate if he had appeared broad-minded and fair to all sides in appointing the well-balanced NLA. Sadly, he wasted that chance.
Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a constitutional law scholar in Thailand