CHATURON CHAISAENG, Thailand’s former education minister, summed up the feelings of both Thai citizens and international observers with his prediction that the latest constitution draft will “lead the country to a dead end”. Obviously, as someone who was forced out from his position of power by the incumbent regime, such a sentiment is to be expected.
Yet, if anything, Chaturon’s words are rather conservative. This is the second draft constitution to be drawn up during the current junta’s rule. Those awaiting its release on January 29 were always destined for disappointment following the first draft’s rejection in October last year.
Junta PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha dissolved the draft commission at the time and replaced it with one that was more inclined to align itself with his interests. Of course, rejecting the first draft gifted Prayuth with an opportunity to extend the junta’s ambitions to remain in power – ambitions which are reflected in the minutiae of the second.
Despite hopes that the second draft constitution would pave a path for democracy, it appears that the opposite is largely the case, greatly weakening the powers of any elected government. Nowhere is this more obvious than in its approach to restructuring the Senate.
Much like the UK’s House of Lords, upon which the Thai Senate was based, a number of unelected individuals from different professional backgrounds are made Senators to ensure an expert level of technical understanding when passing laws. However, increasing the numbers of unelected officials from 74 to 200 has raised many an eyebrow, especially with no requirement to divide those numbers equally between the most relevant professions – medical, legal, etc.
With around 50% of the current junta-controlled assembly formed largely from the military and the police, it is realistic to expect this to continue to be the case in the ranks of those unelected officials after any election. Hence, with increased powers to directly and indirectly intervene in the legislative, administrative and judicial branches of the state, agenda-biased senators can exercise influence over legislation as well as judicial rulings.
A puppet Senate is a cause for concern in itself, in regards to Thailand’s future prospects as a democracy. However, so tightly has the constitution been woven in the junta’s favor, that fixing the Senate is an effort that seems almost surplus to requirements. In this intentionally obfuscated document, written in the language of lip-service, clues abound as to the junta’s intentions.
For instance, article 257 of the constitution declares that Prayuth’s National Council for Peace and Order will only remain in power until the new Cabinet assumes office following an election in July 2017. All well and good. Until you start to look at the small print, that is.
Elections cannot take place, for example, until organic laws governing the administration of the election are put in place; the time frame to do so being a maximum of ten months. Even if these laws were drafted and implemented in a timely fashion, elections do not have to take place until another 5 months have passed. Expanding these timelines to their absolute limits, there is potential to delay the forming of a cabinet until 2018.
Additionally, in the event that those organic laws are not implemented within the specified time, the responsible Constitution Drafting Commission would be disbanded and, as no effort has been made to incorporate this eventuality into the current constitution draft, one can only surmise that yet another re-write might be on the cards.
In order to deflect the eye of an increasingly critical international community, even within the ASEAN region, it is likely that Prayuth will attempt to indefinitely thwart the process of a democratic handover whilst attempting to maintain the veneer of political respectability. On that latter point, however, Thailand’s despot-in-chief has performed unerringly in achieving the exact opposite.
The junta leader does not like criticism – or anything else that legitimately challenges his position of power – and it was the press that once again found itself at the sharp end of his ire, in a day-long diatribe against the follies of dissent and of challenging the constitution draft. Not threats to be taken lightly in the modern-day “land of smiles”.
Numerous journalists, Thai and foreign alike, have been victims of detainments known as “attitude adjustments” by junta officials – a term more reminiscent of something you might hear in a Soviet Gulag than from a 21st century member of the global community. Likewise, critics of the Prayuth’s dictatorship have also found themselves victim of the nation’s famously strict lese majeste laws, with negligible arrests prior to the coup, now ranging in the hundreds.
Even the most pro-traditionalist sections of Thai society, treated to Prayuth’s embarrassing public displays of infantile foot-stomping and the prospect of being relegated from its current position of strength to the economic underbelly of SEA, have lost sympathy with the junta’s blatant attempts at power brokering.
Domestic polls might show the opposite to be true (no surprise there) but the Thai people yearn for a return to democracy – one where they can begin to risk having opinions again and one where they are free to enrich their own lives and that of their loved ones through whatever means they deem fit.
However, not only has the junta undermined all those institutions which might allow this to happen, and cracked down on civil rights and freedoms, but it is also attempting to derail the political and economic future of the country by continuously tightening its grip on power ahead of the 2017 elections. With a maze-like constitution guaranteeing escape from any situation where the reins of power might find their way back into the hands of an elected government, Thailand, unfortunately, would appear to be very far indeed from returning to the democratic fold.