KHON KAEN – In the Northeast, most people were always doubtful. They laughed at the reconciliation trainings that came to their villages. They mocked a constitution drafting process that purported to include their voices. Very few here believed that the military had any intention of swiftly returning Thailand to a democracy. The news that the military rejected its own constitution draft comes as just another sign of the junta’s insincere rule.
Last Sunday, the military government’s hand-picked National Reform Council (NRC) voted down the blueprint for Thailand’s new political system in a process that the military itself had initiated.
After overthrowing an elected government last year, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has argued that constitutional reform is necessary to lift the country out of its chronic cycle of political instability. While the need for reform is recognized across the political spectrum, critics throughout the country and around the world question the military government’s commitment to returning the country to democracy.
The defeat of the charter draft is salt in the wounds of those who saw the drafting process as illegitimate and regarded the government’s efforts to seek citizen participation through public forums as nothing but a false front.
In March, one chairman of a public forum in the Northeast revealed to The Isaan Record that he saw the public participation campaign as “just window-dressing” and expressed no hope for genuine inclusion of people’s voices.
Others embraced the chance to give input to the drafting process, even while admitting that there were little chances that the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) considered their suggestions.
Tul Prasertsilpa, President of the Citizen’s Anti-Corruption Network Khon Kaen, participated in the public forums and is incensed over the defeat of the constitution draft.
“In the Five Rivers, some members are using the reform process to their own benefit,” he claims, referring to the military government’s five major bodies, two of which – the NRC and CDC – are now defunct after the rejection of the charter draft.
He suggested that Prime Minister Prayuth was not decisive enough in his leadership and failed to control the voting process. “Now he can’t follow the roadmap as promised and in the future no one will listen to him anymore,” Mr. Tul said in an interview with The Isaan Record.
The majority of military members in the NRC voted against the constitution draft, leaving the CDC’s Chairman Borwornsak Uwanno to thank the sole three military members who gave their support to the draft. He hinted at pressure from military superiors to vote no.
“It really should have passed, it was a solid draft,” said Wasan Chuchai, Secretary and Committee Member of the Khon Kaen provincial branch of the Lawyers Council of Thailand. He reflects concerns that political meddling played a role in the rejection of the draft and accused “some politicians” of influencing the vote.
However, many suspect the rejection of the constitution was orchestrated by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) in order to postpone handing power back to a civilian government.
“The constitution draft wasn’t democratic and neither was its down voting,” said Siwat Sriphokhakun, a lecturer at the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University. He believes its rejection was coordinated to extend the NCPO’s rule.
The substance of the charter draft had drawn criticism from both political camps as it allowed for an appointed prime minister and included a provision for a “crisis panel” empowered to overrule executive and legislative decisions.
“The charter draft was a tool of military dictatorship and not a vehicle for the will of the people,” said Dr. Wiboon Shamsheun, a former Pheu Thai vice minister from Kalasin. “Constitutional reform must ensure people’s liberties and rights and establish the rule of law,” Dr. Wiboon said.
“That’s what real reform must look like – and not what the PDRC thinks reform is,” he added.
The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) staged mass protests against the former elected government demanding the implementation of a vague set of reforms before elections. The movement’s leaders argue that Thailand is not ready for electoral democracy, a claim that conservative forces have historically clung to in their opposition to a democratic system for Thailand.
For Sutin Klangsaeng, a member of the Pheu Thai party-list from Maha Sarakham, the rejection of the charter draft comes as a mixed blessing. “At least now we don’t have to vote on an undemocratic constitution in a referendum,” he said.
In the run-up to the NRC’s decision on the draft, pro-democracy activists across the country had started to prepare a strategic response in the case of a referendum. Some called for an outright voting boycott, while others argued it would be better to participate by voting no or spoiling the ballot.
On the downside, said Mr. Sutin, the country now has to tolerate extended military rule, which might send Thailand’s economy into a downward spiral and further taint its international image.
“The longer their rule lasts, the more they want to stay in power and the country will keep straying off its democratic path,” Mr. Sutin added.
According to the military government’s rules, it must set up a new constitution drafting body within 30 days, which will have to present a new charter draft within 180 days. The NCPO postponed national elections to 2017 the earliest, after it had pushed back the election date several times.
Mr. Siwat expressed little hope for the new draft to be more democratic than the failed one. “It will limit people’s power again and if it fails a referendum, the process will just start all over again,” he said.
In the Northeast, many would like to see a return to the so-called “People’s Constitution” from 1997, which some regard as Thailand’s most democratic charter. This seems unlikely as the military government regards this constitution as the precondition for the rise of what the NCPO sees as corruption-ridden, populist governments.
The military justified its coup against a democratically elected government with the imperative to end an alleged political deadlock that paralyzed the country’s constitutional bodies. However, now the military seems to be trapped in its own cul-de-sac while desperately seeking ways to legitimize its rule.
For Dao Din student activist Chaturapat Boonyapatraksa, who is awaiting trial for his participation in an anti-coup protest, the rejection of the charter has proven military rule a dead-end street. Its claim of working more efficiently than a civilian government has been reduced to absurdity, he said.
“Their image is damaged now and people will begin to understand that the NCPO can’t keep promise,” he said. Mr. Chaturapat hopes that an organized opposition movement will help bring the military rule down.
“Society is slowly realizing that the military dictatorship is limiting people’s freedom and rights. It will take some time, but eventually, we won’t be able to take it any longer,” he said.