Thailand has had 18 constitutions since 1932 when the absolute monarchy ended. Constitutions–the written ones–come and go as the military flexes its muscles. The question is how does a country with such a record of constitutional disintegration function? One answer is to place the written constitutions into a larger context.
An appropriate science metaphor can be drawn from our current understanding of the physics of the universe. Most scientists agree that the visible universe, that is the universe with mass and light represents something approaching 5% of the observer universe. There are an estimated 100 billion galaxies in our universe, and up to 100 billion stars in each galaxy. But this is only 5% of what is. The rest of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy. In physics no one has been able to figure out what is dark matter or dark energy but there are lots of competing theories.
In the context of the Thai constitutional system, the visible universe is the written constitution. Like our visible universe it is what we can see and readily understand and know. But the written constitutional universe in Thailand must be assessed against the ‘unwritten’ constitution that constitutes 95% of the actual Thai constitutional universe. Like the actual universe, the Thai constitutional universe–the part that we don’t see but no that is there–is subject to a number of theories but remains a mystery.
To continue with the physics metaphor, the lese majeste law (LM) operates like event horizon surrounding a blackhole. Getting too close to the horizon means the constitutional traveler will arrive at the event horizon the moment he begins to draw the true nature of power as divided between the written and unwritten constitution universe. That point, he/she has crossed a line and is swallowed up by the legal system that is ultimately designed to protect the unwritten constitutional system at all cost. That is the function of government–to shield the unwritten system, protect it, and make it the essence of national security. Closing down websites, jailing people for political speech, closing community radio and TV stations is less about ‘hate’ than about controlling what can be said about the relationship of Thailand two constitutional systems.
It is the unwritten constitution that assigns the power, duties and responsibilities between the military, civil servants, police, the palace and powerful families. As with dark matter, we can’t directly view what is the true relationship between these elements, how they react with one another, shift and evolve, and how the power is allocated. Or who or what group of individuals operate the levers behind the scene.
Like dark matter and dark energy, while we can’t yet see or test them directly, we know from indirect test that without them the existing visible universe would not exist. The same is true in Thailand. Without an inquiry into the unwritten constitution, it is impossible to understand how the country has managed to survive the destruction of 18 written constitutions since 1932.
Americans, Australians, Canadians and many others have a written constitution. Britain has an unwritten constitution. Thailand has a hybrid constitution, which simultaneously has a written and unwritten constitution. Once the presence of both systems is taken into account, much of Thai politics become comprehensible. The problem most outsiders (and many insiders, too) have had about Thailand is learning the coded language that indicates which constitutional system someone is talking about. Often it is like someone speaking in tongues, or switching from one language to the other without warning and explanation, or any connecting tissue of argument.
In October 2010, video leaks involving the Constitution surfaced on YouTube. The secretly filmed meetings implicate judges of the Constitutional Court in a number of scandals, from assisting their relatives to have advance questions on an examination for positions at the judges’ own Court, to the fate of the ruling party in a case involving campaign contributions. There has been no constitutional crisis. Nor will one likely emerge as the court’s function is to ensure those in charge of administering the unwritten constitutional system maintain their position. In most countries with a written constitution, these videos would have caused an immediate constitutional crisis.
The response to the video leaks by authorities (i.e., the Court, the government and the police) was to go after the whistle blower, who was a court official. He was stripped off his position and Thai passport. Online newspapers that released the leaked videos have been sued by the Court and people have been warned against disseminating the leaked videos. Thai judges and courts, by law, can’t be criticized without risking civil and criminal penalties. This immunity from criticism gives the Constitutional Court a free hand as the judges balance the interest of the written and unwritten constitutional systems and their differing but overlapping constituents.
In Thailand, people are talking, writing, blogging, tweeting about the videos and the judges but it is unlikely to lead to any substantive action by the government. This inaction is indirect evidence of the vitality and importance of the unwritten constitution and the people who shelter under it. Thailand remains a long way from the day when the elements of constitutional arrangements are contained within the written constitution. The divided constitutional house mirrors the divided public. Until that issue is resolved, it is understandable why few have come out to discuss how the current court scandal shows a flaw in the written constitution.
What is also clear is how few Thais have any allegiance to the written constitution–maybe it is because such documents are so transitory. The 1997 People’s Constitution is cited as the best of the lot. But the 1997 constitution was abrogated by the coup of September 19, 2006 and the military government wrote a new one that was more in line with the objectives of the unwritten constitution. The political turmoil and impasse that has resulted since the coup of September 19, 2006 has in large part been caused by those representing the unwritten constitutional arrangements had decided the written constitutional mandates had gone too far and a politician could use popularity along with the 1997 “People’s Constitution” as a mechanism to unwind and weaken the power base of those benefiting from the unwritten constitutional universe. The problem the military and others have had is a sudden resistance to putting the constitutional clock back, of reconfiguring the written and unwritten constitutional system in a way that looks more a constitutional universe from an earlier era.
In the last four years since the coup in Thailand, the unwritten constitution–the fall back position used by the elites for unofficial governance–has asserted itself as overriding the written constitution. In the past, no one would have thought this was unusual. The coup changed that indifference among many people. While the argument have been framed as republican or royalist, this has masked the real issue–how did the unwritten constitution permit the absolute monarchy structure to remain largely in place when the 1932 revolution replaced it with a constitutional monarchy?
The Thai ability at compromise created a constitutional world with both a written constitutional in place–the one that is shown to foreigners, students, the man in the street–and the unwritten constitution where power over force and violence is exercised as under the absolute monarchy model. With 18 constitutions since 1932, it is evident this has been an uneasy co-existence, erupting in periodic coups whenever those in the unwritten constitutional universe decide it is time to throw out those who claim legitimacy through elections.
That is the internal tension between the two constitutional systems that is largely hidden from sight. In a written constitution, legitimacy of the power and legal arrangements are said to flow from the consent of the people–and their political aspirations are said to be represented in such a power and system arrangement. To tear up the constitution has historically been done when those residing in the unwritten constitutional side feel their interest under threat. The usual reason for a coup has been allegations of corruptions by those operating under the written constitution.
Corruption has been a convenient excuse for intervention as the written and unwritten systems aren’t independent of each other, while the corruption flows under both power structures, it falls to those under the written constitution to face the consequences. Thus it is only those who serve in the written constitutional system who are vulnerable to legal consequences of wrongful actions. The unwritten constitutional officials have special power that is invulnerable to prosecution and attempts at accountability would lead to legal penalties against those pursuing such an action.
Thailand has reached a crossroads constitutionally. The tug of two separate constitutional systems, which have had an uneasy co-existence, has yet to reach a defining, decisive moment. As physicist tell us the visible universe wouldn’t exist without dark matter and dark energy. There are those in government who make the same argument in coded language about the importance of maintaining the unwritten constitutional arrangements. What has changed is the attitude of many people–it is difficult to know the exact numbers–but it seems we are not talking about a small number–who wish to incorporate a unified constitutional universe where the mystery of official and unofficial power arrangements is eliminated.