Political heavyweights debate Thailand’s future… under heavy scrutiny
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Political heavyweights debate Thailand’s future… under heavy scrutiny

Last night the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) hosted a forum on the future of politics in Thailand. Saksith gave more background information on the participants in a previous post. The discussion was very much divided, with Pheu Thai and Democrat party members in opposition to National Reform Council member Alongkorn Polabutr.

The panelists were:

Alongkorn Polabutr, senior member of the National Reform Council and former deputy leader, Democrat Party

Chaturon Chaiseng, former Education Minister, Pheu Thai Party

Kasit Piromya, former Foreign Minister, Democrat Party

Phongthep Thepkanjana, Former Deputy Prime Minister, Pheu Thai Party

The event was moderated by the BBC’s Thailand correspondent Jonathan Head, who explained in advance that there had been negotiations with the junta about the event, and that it was only allowed to take place on the proviso that there was no criticism of the NCPO or any person that was not present in the room. Head mentioned panelist Chaturon Chaiseng’s arrest the last time he had spoken at the FCCT, and hoped there would be no repeat performance. Still, it was a full house and many expected there to be some kind of military intervention.

The fact that the event was allowed to happen may have been in part because Alongkorn Polabutr is also a senior member of the NRC, as well as former deputy leader of the Democrat Party, who left the party when they would not reform. He had said previously that the success of Pheu Thai should not be “put down to vote-buying, electoral fraud or populism,” but seems to have changed his tune about politicians as he delivered a vehement anti-politician statement. He said the coup was unfortunate as the politicians could not solve their own problems and had overseen Thailand while spending lots of money on education and healthcare, but having the worst HIV rate in ASEAN and a failed education system. Much of the blame was placed on “populist policies”, which he said had caused Thailand to be “the sick man of Asia”.

Much of his time was spent discussing the Constitution Drafting Committee’s framework for elections, which he says are due to take place in early 2016: “The constitution will be ready and in place by September, by-laws will be in place within 60 more days. The election will be held within 90 days of the by-laws being codified.” This clearly suggests an election in February 2015.

He explained that there may be a slight delay if a referendum is required, as 90 days is needed to disseminate information to the public in case of a vote. He went on to say that “this will be one of the biggest re-engineerings that the country has undergone: social, economic, political, education, science and technology”.

Parroting the rhetoric of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), Alongkorn said that Thailand will “not have a future without reform”. He added that the public will see that Thailand has a bright democratic future, once the NRC’s blueprint for reform is revealed. He explained the people will be more empowered than ever through the new electoral system and that Thailand is in safe hands as it guided through a turbulent period.

Next up was Chaturon, who quipped that he would prefer to be able to speak his mind freely without being arrested and that he had been explicitly warned by the NCPO not to be critical of them. Instead, Chaturon provided a withering assessment of the future of democracy in Thailand. He said that any election held under the new constitution is going to be meaningless and not ‘genuinely democratic’ as the people will not be able to elect a Prime Minister, instead it will be the unelected senate which will ultimately determine who gets to lead the country, as well as unelected bodies which can easily impeach.

He explained there is also a provision in the constitution to appoint a new PM in times of crisis, which he predicted would occur within three months of any election. He criticized the wording of this legislation as providing a simple loophole that could be exploited at the first sign of protest. Furthermore, he explained that it is going to be mandatory for the junta’s reforms to be continued, meaning that an elected government will have little influence on major areas of policy. He said that this will mean, essentially, the end of political parties in Thailand as there will be no differences and they will be unable to keep electoral promises. In short, the reforms being put in place now are meant to last for decade(s) to come.

He went to on to call the process of reform illegitimate as there is no public consent or input. He criticized education and technology reforms for not addressing actual issues but rather serving conservative ideological purposes, which are going to be codified and unchangeable, destroying Thai representative democracy in the process. The junta’s claim to be empowering the provinces was analogized as, “window dressing when the very valuable property in the building has already been stolen”. Adding that “the power to choose the PM has been taken away. The power to implement policies has been taken away. But they empower small organisations, but not the most important power… now people will vote, but make no decision”.

He finished off by criticizing the lack of any effort towards reconciliation from the junta, who have failed to address the roots of the conflict and have instead tried to enforce their version of reform as reconciliation. In words that may well be prophetic, he predicted that as soon as martial law is lifted we will be back to square one as the root cause has not been addressed and instead Thailand will slip further behind the international community and be the laughing stock of the AEC.

Kasit took a conciliatory tone with the two Pheu Thai MPs and made the case for returning democracy to the Thai people. He discussed the trend of democratization and de-centralisation which had been empowering people since 1999, and how the political awareness of the citizenry had never been higher than before the coup. He criticized the 1997 constitution for giving too much power to the executive branch, and called the political protests over the period a part of Thailand finding its democratic feet. He said that he believed that the political parties would have found a solution without the coup, adding that Prayuth should have given them more than 48 hours to find a resolution, and that the military has no role in politics. He believes that elected governments and de-centralisation are the way to go, liberalising much of the state apparatus in the process to reduce bureaucracy and increase efficiency.

He rejected the idea of an unelected upper house and said that it is against the will of Thais and goes against the tide of democratization. He insisted he wants more power to the people and for Thailand to be fully democratic like Hong Kong and South Korea. He re-asserted that guided authoritarian democracy is only going to make things worse and that the government had to have faith in the people, all of whom are presently being excluded from having a say in their own lives.

He lamented that political protests were all ultimately worthless and that, despite their problems, they were made up of the Thai citizenry voicing its will for more democracy and more accountability. He then went on to describe the present government as akin to a totalitarian, fascist or Communist regime as they are ignoring all stakeholders and enforcing their will on the people. He encouraged intellectual members of the reform committee to involve the people in reforms to help gain legitimacy, and concluded by saying that he sees Thailand’s destiny as “caught in the middle income trap”, if the present roadmap is followed. He called for reform and an end to end to nepotism and despotism in which the upper echelons of Thai society exploit the people at the bottom. Rather rich coming from a member of the Democrat Party.

Phongthep started off by informing the NCPO that he did not need a military escort to help him to leave the FCCT, and discussed his history of working in all three branches of government. He explained that there are both good and bad people at all levels of society, with the only constant being that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He said that the best we can do is to trust in the foundation of democracy and trust the people’s will; he said that unless we believe in the people then we cannot govern under the democratic system, and that the present constitution has no faith in the people’s sovereignty. In the future, the government will only be able to pick a PM to appease the unelected senate and extra-constitutional bodies, made of people who may have no knowledge of the subject over which they are deciding.

He called for a referendum on the new constitution, and added that if the people reject it then they should automatically be given the 1997 constitution, which he had a hand in drafting. He asked Alongkorn to pass the message on to the relevant people.

Afterwards, Jonathan Head passed back to Alongkorn to reply to the universal criticism which he and the junta had received and asked if the constitutional drafting process was an elitist and un-representative process. Alongkorn insisted that there had been misunderstanding. He said that he did not agree with the coup, but that now it has happened it needs to be taken advantage of.

Alongkorn again blamed the politicians for the present situation, insisting that checks and balances had failed and that it was impossible impeach a corrupt minister in the present system. He claimed that 90% of the previous government’s ministers were corrupt, and told his co-participants to get their own house in order before criticizing the work of those looking to reform. He told of his recent trip to Myanmar and of how impressed he was with their progress towards democracy, unlike Thailand which had been heading towards anarchy before the coup.

He said that a new form of upper house will be called the ‘House of Citizens’ and will be an incorruptible organisation ‘drawn from the people.’ He was vague on what exactly this all meant. He said that Thailand was trapped in a cycle of coups and constitutions that the politicians were to blame, and that this new constitution would be the last as Thailand enters a new paradigm.

He said that the new system will be better than in the past and that the party list will come to reflect everyone in the country as political parties become free from political investors and mafia politics

He closed by saying that he feels guilty as a former minister that he was part of the country getting itself into such a mess, but that his perspective had now changed and he sees a bright future. He has adjusted his attitude, and he encouraged all present to do the same.

It was good to see the two warring political factions find some apparent harmony at last, alas it seems to be too little too late, as the future of Thai democracy looks bleak. The cycle of elections, coups and constitutions seems like it still has a lot more life in in yet.

About the author:

Jack Radcliffe is a Bangkok-based anthropologist focusing on contemporary Thailand.