With Hunger, A Long Fight for Democracy

It was the same spot where this 71-year-old man held a 45-day long hunger strike in 1992 to protest against General Suchinda Kraprayoon, then Prime Minister who came from a coup he led in 1991. The protest led to Black May, a people’s uprising in Bangkok which toppled the military regime and paved the way to a more democratic government for Thailand.  
 
Twenty-two years later, Pilot Officer Chalard Worachat is back camping outside Parliament House in Bangkok, solo, with more or less the same demands -- to abolish an undemocratic constitution and oppose an appointed Prime Minister, as well as a military coup. 
 

Chalard Worachat camping outside Parliament House in Bangkok since March 22
 
This time he has not yet started a hunger strike, but he says he will, should a military coup happen. 
 
A Member of the Democrat Party since 1965 (he resigned in 1987 to become a full-time activist), Chalard has been occupying the footpath in front of Dusit Zoo since March 22, the day after the Constitutional Court nullified the February 2 general election on the grounds that it could not be held on the same day nationwide. 
 
Becoming well-known as a “hunger striker” from his actions, Chalard said the core problem of Thai politics is the 2007 constitution which allows independent agencies too much power over the government.
 
“Almost every constitution we’ve had has some traces of military dictatorship to it,” said Chalard. “I don’t directly oppose to the Constitutional Court’s decision because it goes by the 2007 charter. We must call for the abolition of the current seditious constitution, and bring back a more democratic one.”
 
The charter court’s decision nullifying the poll has added an equation to Thailand’s political conflict, which started about five months ago when anti-government protests took to the street with calls to oust the Yingluck government.  
 
The government’s futile attempt to pass a blanket amnesty bill in October met with wide opposition, pressuring Yingluck to dissolve parliament in December. She held a general election two months later. 
 
Anti-government demonstrators disrupted the election, aiming to establish a unelected so-called “People’s Council” which they say would carry out an 18-month-long national reform before holding elections. 
 
However, the senate election late last month went well without any disruption. 
 
It is unclear when a new election for MPs will be held. It has left the caretaker government almost powerless at a time when the courts and independent agencies were lining up a number of cases that could lead to the impeachment against the caretaker Prime Minister as well as 308 members of the senate and house. 
 
“The situation will lead to chaos, more violence and a military coup for sure,” said Chalard. “What we need is a new election to be held as soon as possible. We need a Prime Minister who comes from elections.”
 
The protesters and some aligned opposition members have called for an appointed Prime Minister as a way to get rid of the Yingluck administration. Analysts say that the appointed senators, who make up 50% of the upper house and are aligned with the establishment, may end up appointing a Prime Minister now that parliament has no other members left. 
 
But for this Air Force officer, any undemocratic method has no place in Thailand’s law and order. In 2007, Chalard sued 308 people involved in the coup, including General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the coup leader, for overthrowing the state and treason.
 
“Those who cited Article 7 to call for a royally-appointed Prime Minister, I sued them all. They were defaming the monarchy by doing that,” said Chalard. 
 
Three years and over 300,000 baht (in legal fees) later, the Supreme Court stood by the Court of First Instance to dismiss the complaint filed by Chalard, saying that the coup makers had already received an amnesty from the post-coup constitution.  
 
“The problem is those people hate Thaksin so much, they cannot see things clearly,” he said. 
 
With his persistence, Chalard’s hunger strikes have led to many crucial moments in Thai politics. In 1983, during the General Prem Tinasulanond government, the House tried to pass a bill allowing bureaucrats and military officers to become Prime Minister, in effect allowing Prem to extend his term. Chalard held a hunger strike for nine days before successfully stopping passage of the bill. 
 
However, Chalard’s very first hunger strike took place three years before that. He protested against the right-wing Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamanan, who was installed after the 1977 military coup, for raising oil prices. 
 
It caused Kriangsak to resign on the 36th hour of Chalard’s hunger strike. 
 
“It’s not the people’s duty to come out, protest and get hurt. I was the people’s representative, so I sacrificed myself for my people to raise their issues,” said Chalard, who was then a Democrat lawmaker from Trat Province. 
 
“Chalard is a smart politician dedicated to righteousness,” said Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent social critic who wrote a book in tribute to Chalard. “Many people labelled him as crazy but we should look up to him as an example of struggle by peaceful means.”
 
Chalard also played an important role in pushing for the 1997 constitution, the charter regarded by many as one of the most democratic in Thailand’s history.  
 
After the fall of General Suchinda Kraprayoon in 1992, democratically-elected PM Chuan Leekpai from the Democrat Party became Prime Minister but did not care to amend the undemocratic constitution inherited from the army. 
 
Chalard protested against his party leader by holding a hunger strike to call on Chuan to amend the 1992 constitution to be more democratic, but on the 49th day, he quit due to his deteriorating health. The Supreme Patriach asked him to ordain instead. 
 
His strike however led to “Chalard’s Friends,” a committee which successfully pushed for political reform as its main social agenda, and later paved the way for the drafting of the 1997 constitution. 
 
Asked what he thinks of the Democrat Party for boycotting the Feb 2 election, Chalard said he first decided to join the party because it was against the military in the 1970s.
 
“Now it changed from opposing dictatorship to supporting it,” he said. 
 

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