Thailand has been searching for an appropriate form of government for more than 80 years. It’s unlikely to find one this Sunday when the country votes on a contentious new constitution.
At first glance, there may be something unique in the Thai military junta seeking to have its action and program legitimised through approval by referendum of a somewhat undemocratic constitution. Yet, in other ways — from a long-, medium- and short-term perspective — this is in continuity with the political trajectory of modern Thailand since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932.
Thailand’s second military coup in 1932 succeeded where the first of 1912 failed because the military leader, Phibun Songram, allied himself with a Western-educated liberal (and republican?), Pribi Banamyong, to found a political party, the People’s Party, giving a democratic veneer to his play for power.
However, within this duumvirate the contradiction between two sources of legitimate rule remained unresolved: one was new, namely representative democracy through the ballot box, and the other linked to the ancien regime, that of the rule of virtuous men. Seen within the longue durée the last 84 years can be described as the search for an appropriate mode of governance for the Thai nation.
This situation is not unusual. After all, it was only some 80 or so years after the French Revolution with the founding of the Third Republic that a return to absolute monarchical rule became unthinkable.
What, nevertheless, as explained by Chai-Anan Samudavanija, is unique in the Thai case is that 1932 was first in the vicious circles of coups, interim constitutions, permanent (sic) constitutions, elections, protests leading to further coups. The last coup of May 2014 was the sixth in this series.
The draft constitution proposed for approval in the referendum on 7 August will be the 21st or 22nd since 1932 — something of a world record. However when constitutions, with an average shelf-life of approximately four years, are treated as disposable nappies, is it any wonder that the notion itself of a constitutional order and the rule of law in Thailand becomes problematic, a situation exacerbated by the politicisation of independent referring bodies such as the Supreme Court.
The referendum of 7 August is an attempt to show that this time, this constitution is really permanent. Alas, unlike the People’s Constitution of 1997 (the most transparent and progressive) which was the result of public debate and the fruit of a largely representative Constituent Assembly, this second draft has not been the subject of debate. Nor, more importantly, is there a sense of ‘ownership’ even, it would appear, among those in Bangkok such as in the Democrat Party, who supported the military coup of 2014.
If this is the case why is the military even bothering to organise the referendum?
Here we enter a number of mid-term considerations. In organising the referendum, the military regime is attempting to draw from the lessons learned from the 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra.
From the military perspective in 2006 they failed to consolidate and legitimise their control, for within a year after the promulgation of yet another constitution Thaksin’s party under another name, and with his sister Yingluck as Prime Minister, was back in government.
This time around General Prayuth Chan-ocha is taking no chances.
Included in the draft provisions are that for the first five years, the present governing National Council for Peace and Order selects nearly all members of the upper house including six seats reserved for the security forces and that a non-lower house member can become Prime Minister. Furthermore, future military intervention will be legalised in advance.
Moreover, as Allen Hicken has explained, introducing multi-member constituencies will mean it will be very difficult for one political party to have a majority of seats in the lower house. As Jim Glassman has shown, from the royalist-nationalist perspective one of the “evils” of the 1997 Constitution was that it led, for the first time in Thai history, to a party, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai having a majority in parliament in its own right.
The new draft will mean a return to the status quo ante (the quiet before the war) of weak coalition governments allowing the public service with their military and business compradors the maximum political space.
Finally, from a short-term perspective, the referendum can be seen as an exercise in political theatre to bide Thailand over as it enters a period of potential turmoil with an impending royal succession.
The royalist-nationalist establishment is in a bind of its own making. Having elevated the monarchy to the position as the keystone of the Thai nation it now must cope with the unthinkable: the Crown Prince, as recent images emanating from Munich attest, appears manifestly unfit to take on the mantle of the dhammaraja to be bequeathed by his father, King Bhumibol.
To conclude, it is questionable whether Thai voters will effectively disenfranchise themselves, given that the draft constitution will mean the creation of a largely appointed parliament and legal prerogatives for the military to continually intervene in Thai political life.
Even if a constitutional draft – that is not only opposed by the two main political parties, Pheu Thai and the Democrats, but on which no political debate has been allowed – receives majority support among those Thais who bother to vote, it is doubtful whether this will provide the Thai military junta and part of the royal-nationalist elite with the democratic unction it seeks.
On the contrary, the referendum will not be a celebration of national unity but one that glosses over the regional, class and ideological divisions within the kingdom.
These I suspect will come to the fore with the death of King Bhumibol and once the painful moment of the royal succession comes, as it inevitably must.
David Camroux is a resident Senior Associate at the Centre for International Studies, Sciences Po in Paris and, from 1 September, Professorial Fellow at the Vietnam National University, Hanoi.