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Thailand's Junta

Junta’s tight control ensures Thai referendum will be no exercise in democracy

Pavin Chachavalpongpun says the junta’s grip on the making of a new constitution sets back further the country’s democratic development

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 August, 2016, 6:18pm

Thailand’s latest constitutional draft will be judged in a referendum on August 7. The junta has reiterated that the process of writing a constitution is in accordance with a road map to democracy. Implicitly, the military government wants to show that it has been transparent and willing to confront criticism. Ironically, though, those who speak out against the process risk being jailed.

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If the constitution is given a green light, it would add legitimacy to the military government, serving as “infrastructure” for the military and the traditional elite to continue to dominate politics. In the twilight of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign, the country’s elite is trying to turn the judiciary into an institution able to intervene in politics when necessary – as the king has occasionally done in the past. Defending this constitution means, in part, empowering the legal hands to redefine Thai politics for the benefit of the elite.

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Some provisions in the constitution are designed to weaken future civilian governments. Certain institutions will be empowered, including the Senate and the Constitutional Court, to counterbalance elected governments. Independent candidates will be encouraged to enter the election race so as to break the dominance of influential parties, like that of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Moreover, future prime ministers will not have to be a member of parliament, paving the way for old generals to take the post.

Public endorsement of the constitution matters to the junta because it can be employed to thwart possible interventions from foreign governments, should they perceive the referendum to be fraudulent.

Given all this, negative comments about the referendum are being treated as illegal. Campaigns against the constitution are forbidden, and selling “Vote No” T-shirts is not allowed. In June, 14 students were arrested for protesting against the junta.

Hence, the referendum will not offer an answer to the Thai political stalemate. Should the result meet the junta’s objectives, politics will only venture further into the unknown. Upcoming elections, possibly in 2017, will not pull Thailand out of the vicious circle.

As the country heads towards a royal succession, anxiety over public acceptance of the king-in-waiting could intensify. For the junta, the need to control the succession is imperative and the manipulation of the constitution goes some way to serve this purpose. The military is setting the stage for itself in high places. Sadly, this can only delay the pace of democratisation in Thailand.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies