As the nation rounds the last corner towards the Aug 7 constitutional referendum, the outcome remains uncertain and the aftermath worrisome.
Without a safe and open debate on the pros and cons of the draft charter due to the government’s harsh limitations on freedom of speech, it is hard to gauge public sentiment on the matter. Polls can be misleading. The referendum outcome is thus less likely to reflect what the public thinks about the articles of the constitution, but more so the emotions stirred by perceptions of the current political situation and economic well-being.
On the “Yes” side is the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) headed by coup leader and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Gen Prayut insists that the constitution, if it passes, will be in accordance with the set “road map” to return to democracy with elections promised in 2017. The leader of the now-defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), Suthep Thaugsuban, who led the street protests against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra which ended with the coup d’etat in 2014, broadcasts daily on Facebook his reasons for voting “Yes”.
Strangely, there are also “Yes” votes from people who dislike the present regime, and feel that the best way to get rid of them is to put elections back on track. The stagnant economy and the government’s incompetency in problem solving, together with surging corruption allegations — which have caused a general “gloomy” feeling, even for those who initially supported the coup. Also on this side are many politicians who had been “unemployed” for more than two years and willing to take their chances in an electoral contest, no matter what the rules of the game are.
Sitting firmly on the “No” side are Pheu Thai members who coordinated their rejection statements. This is obvious since they were the government thrown out by the current regime, detained by the military and charged with various court cases — many of them continue to be harassed by authorities. The Pheu Thai camp also feels that the military is losing its grip on power so they must add fuel to the fire. On the other side of the coin, if the constitution passes, it would be detrimental to Pheu Thai members as they could be prevented from rising to power.
The Democrats are split. Mr Suthep of the PDRC, also a former Democrat Party secretary-general, still controls quite a number of former MPs, and is in the “Yes” camp. But Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva will likely not follow suit. He rose to fame as a strong advocate for democracy against coup leader and then prime minister Suchinda Kraprayoon in the May 1992 bloodshed. He had some lapses in judgement and appeared to be close to the military when he was prime minister, cracking down on the red-shirt protest in 2010, an event which resulted in at least 100 deaths in the middle of Bangkok. Now he will want to appear on the “right side” of democracy, but so far he has been sitting on the fence. This week, expect a qualified “No” and let’s see if he can get party followers to be on board.
An unexpected “No” came from Paisal Puechmongkol, a staunch supporter of the regime and close adviser to Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon. His argument is that the NCPO and the government still have lots of work to do in pursuing the reform agenda. He did not specify how much longer they should be in power to complete the mission without going to the polls. He did say that there are groups of people who would like to see Gen Prayut stay on for another five to 20 years. The road is a little longer on his map.
The Platform for Concerned Citizens (PCC), formed by 117 individuals from various walks of life, signed a statement demanding a more open debate and participation on the draft constitution. And this past Sunday, 43 grassroots organisations, the Nitirat group of Thammasat law professors, academics and students’ groups went further to call for the NCPO to take responsibility and step down if the referendum fails to pass. In such a case, the regime must let the people draft their own constitution. This kind of people’s coalition has been very effective in voicing concerns and amassing protest events which could eventually topple a regime and force its leaders to live in exile. The NCPO must take heed.
Gen Prayut should take a firmer approach in opening up debates without threats of arrest or harassment. The regime’s recent decision to give the go-ahead for the Election Commission’s television debates and the Interior Ministry’s provincial forum is the right direction but it is not enough. Unhindered debates and campaigns by those who support or oppose the draft constitution must be allowed. With only a week and a few days left, it might be a little too late, but it is better late than never.
The government has to understand that the process matters for the referendum to be legitimate. If it is organised with a closed-minded attitude in which voters go to voting booths unsure of what is going on or what they are really voting for, the government is definitely accountable for it.
If the charter passes without the mutually-accepted legitimacy of the referendum process, there could be denials of the constitution coming in many forms leading to mass protests. If the naysayers win, the NCPO leadership could be challenged from their own internal coalition and from those opposing the regime who will be calling for Gen Prayut and his team to be ousted.
Constitutions are tricky documents. They cannot be easily understood, let alone be decided by a general referendum. People expect different things, or maybe in many cases, even ignore them altogether — since they will not change any particular individual’s way of life immediately. But they are important. If the principles of liberty and freedom, checks and balances, institutional arrangements and law and order are skewed or rigged for the benefit of the few, conflicts endure.
Such are constitutions in Thailand. Only the first constitution which arose from the revolution of 1932 was written by commoners outside the then establishment. The rest were tools written by winners of political conflicts at different times. They were products drafted with tug-of-war haggling between elites, businessmen, academics, the military and politicians. Some were better for the common citizens than others, because the mass spoke up and sacrificed their lives for them, but most, like the current draft, left much to be desired. They became vehicles for retaining power and getting rid of political opponents. And historically, it never ends well.
Gen Prayut can still right the wrong. He must ditch his military instinct of control and command. He must deny the urge within himself and those surrounding him that he and only he can run this country. He can get off the tiger’s back without being eaten. But he needs to open the process up. With real participation from stakeholders and the general public, whatever the outcome of the referendum is, the public will be on a path towards making democracy more secure for the benefit of all, including Gen Prayut.
Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.