History Department, Faculty of Humanities, Chiang Mai University
What reasons do we use in deciding to accept or reject the draft 2007 constitution? The reasons given both publicly and privately are numerous, but can be grouped into two main categories: those concerning the content of the draft charter and those concerning considering the context.
To consider the content is to examine the whole text, analyze it article by article, and make a judgment in terms of its democratic values; for example, the much advertised empowerment of independent bodies, reduction of the government power, increased people's rights and freedoms, etc. If one sees that this would make it an excellent constitution that allows further political and social development, one should vote for it. This is mainly what groups of proponents connected to the drafters and the government have promoted.
If one thinks of rejecting it, the authorities would ask if one has read the draft, understood it or not, and made comparisons with previous charters to see how splendid and fit for Thai socio-politics this draft is, etc. This last point is interesting:
Is it fit for Thai society? Fit for whom, what groups, occupations or classes? Do Thai people always share the same interests, thoughts, and culture?
Is what is ‘splendid' in the draft constitution according to the proponents the same as in other democratic countries?
Or does Thai society and culture have its own definitions; of, for example, Democracy with the King as Head of State.
However, many people ranging from the ordinary to those with high educational, social and economic status may consider more than just the content. The authorities also have ideas along these lines; for example, they talk of accepting the draft so as to have a general election and avoid unrest in the country, or accepting it to make amendments later on, or even ‘accepting' it because billions of baht have already been spent on it.
Considering the context
This takes various perspectives: a historical perspective which considers the Sept 19 coup in the context of political and social changes; expectations and predictions of future consequences; the hidden agenda behind the content; fear of political domination by the military; and hatred of certain individuals and political parties who will benefit from the draft charter.
This article tries to present reasons to reject the draft charter in line with these considerations:
How is the Sept 19 coup different from or similar to previous coups?
The Sept 19 coup gained much support from urban people, particularly in Bangkok, the media and academics who were believed to be advocates for Democracy. That appeared to justify the coup, in contrast to previous coups. However, is the Sept 19 coup really different from other coups and coup attempts since the royalist coup in 1933? The 1933 coup was a direct response to the attempt to establish Democracy which was still very young, and if the coup led by Prince Boworadet had succeeded, the Monarchy would have made a comeback.
Several attempts have been made to return the country to the pre-1932 regime, but failed due to social changes, legacies of the people's struggles, etc. However, this desire still remains in Thai society. Sometimes explicit and sometimes dormant awaiting an opportunity to emerge, such desires have been refreshed by new characters and alliances. The lyrics may change, but the tune remains the same. The Sept 19 coup is a variation on the theme.
No matter what rhetoric has been used to support coups, whether it be to restore the royal prerogative (1933), to kill off electoral fraud (1957), to counter the communist insurgency (1973), to overthrow the ‘buffet Cabinet' (1991), or to topple the ‘Thaksin Regime' (2006), the root cause of coups in Thailand lies in the conflict between two regimes: one in which ordinary people have a share in government, though differently at different levels; and the other in which the administration belongs to the elite, which was the tradition before the revolution in 1932.
The conflict between these two regimes is not restricted only to politics or more specifically to the content of the constitution, but probably more importantly it appears in people's consciousness. The attitude that rejects a regime in which ordinary people have a share in government has been actively built among the media, academia, as well as peers and relatives. It has been consistently repeated and emphasised that politicians are corrupt and uneducated, while the people are stupid, selling their votes, unlike the pedigreed elite who are educated and patriotic. This general political view is held by bureaucrats and urban middle class.
This kind of attitude is not without reason, but it is blown out of proportion or over- generalized.
Attempts to undermine regimes in which ordinary people have a share in government come from different directions. The success of the Sept 19 coup is an example of the combined effect of such efforts by political parties, the media, academia, the bourgeoisie, the military and privy councillors. Noticeably, the more share of power the people have, the stronger the resistance.
Some may see this dichotomy as an oversimplified and superficial analysis of the complicated conflicts and problems in Thai society. This objection may carry some weight when considering the problems at a factual level. But analysis of information needs abstraction. And there are different levels of abstraction. The more facts that are considered over a longer period of time, the higher the level of abstraction. However, this is an issue that should be discussed academically. This dichotomy is pertinent to the bipolar choice (‘accept' or ‘reject'). The issues being considered may be presented in other forms such as a conflict between dictatorship and democracy, or the bureaucracy and parliament, or more specifically between pro-military and anti-military forces.
These bipolar forces have fought each other since the 1932 revolution.
Sometimes regimes in which ordinary people have their share in government have won and sometimes lost, as seen in the period of Oct 14, 1973 - Oct 6, 1976.
When the regime in which the administration belongs to the elite wins, it cannot abolish the people's share of power altogether, only temporarily. Nevertheless, the people's power is undermined. Constitutions resulting from coups, including the 2007 draft, always have this characteristic.
Those who believe that the people should have a smaller share of power should vote to accept the draft.
The advertised message that this draft constitution gives more power to independent bodies and the people in scrutinizing and controlling the government can be challenged.
a. The system of checks and balances does not necessarily increase the people's share of power. In practice some groups might be manipulated to undermine the legislative and administrative branches, which would benefit the elite.
b. The claim that rights and freedoms are broadened, improved and more democratic is like a trade-off against the rights and freedoms to elect MPs and senators. Is it a good bargain?
The granted rights would in practice be feasible for certain groups of people, and would not be worth being traded off against the rights to elect representatives to run the country and make laws, as well as to act as a channel to deal with the bureaucracy or voice the people's concerns.
c. The major reason given for reducing the people's right to choose their representatives is to solve the problems of the Thaksin Regime. But how and to what extent the problems of Thaksin relate to the 1997 Constitution is debatable, and the conclusions are not clear. Is Thaksin really capable of establishing a regime?
Suppose Thailand continues to use the 1997 Constitution, can it be predicted that the same problems with the previous government will re-occur? Or is it just a pretext to undermine the people's share in power? In fact, this is the same as what happened before, but with varying pretexts: people lack education, are not ready, and do not know democracy, and there is a need to protect the Nation, Religion, and Monarchy.
Those who see that the bureaucracy should have a greater share of power should vote to accept the draft.
The cause of coups d'etat in Thailand is no different from other developing countries in Africa and South America, and not culturally unique. They share some characteristics such as the use of military force and the undermining of democratic forces. What is special about the Thai case is that the elite join hands with the military to prevent the people from sharing ‘too much' power. Power sharing is the key in deciding to accept or reject.
It can be argued that this is a reason for opposing the coup, not the draft per se. There are 3 points to be made.
a. When the ‘good' draft gets ‘no' votes in the referendum, the votes to reject would signify consideration of the context, meaning disapproval of the tearing-up of the 1997 Constitution, and the coup that gave birth to this draft.
b. Some may ask why the coup should be opposed at this moment, almost a year later. The reason is the risk involving in opposing the coup. It is a dangerous act that demands courage and sacrifice at a level very few people can reach. It is rare to find someone in Thailand with the strong determination to uphold democracy of Mr. Nuamthong Paiwan. The referendum then offers an opportunity to show symbolically the illegitimacy of the coup. This is something everyone is capable of doing.
c. Some may then argue that although a coup d'etat is uncivilized or at least is not an outcome that should be adopted by intelligent people , it may bring about a "good" constitution.
The key issue here is that the 19 September coup d'etat not only abolished the constitution. The military and those in power also created an atmosphere of fear that threatens and oppresses the people. (The referendum is being done in such an atmosphere with martial law imposed in many provinces alongside the claim that this government supports democracy.) This atmosphere is not the result of written document or constitution, but arises from the exercise of power, directly and indirectly, by the military and the powers-that-be. It has a psychological effect on the mind of the people.
The new constitution will not clear this atmosphere or erase the abuse of power. Instead, a "yes" to the constitution is nothing but more fuel added to the flame. Rejecting the constitution is one act of disobedience. Although it cannot bring about full freedom, at least it is another step towards the return of a democratic atmosphere.
Those who think that the military should play a role both publicly and behind the scenes should say "yes" to this constitution.