Foreign countries are expressing quiet concern over Thai plans to outlaw surrogate democracy. While readily acknowledging Thailand’s right to enact legislation to protect its own body politic, they are urging a transitional approach.
A number of foreign governments are thought to have invested heavily in ongoing surrogate democracy programmes in Thailand which, due to the normal course of events, will take time to mature. A sudden clampdown will put their investments at risk.
The Thai authorities seem to have been taken unawares by the upsurge in the country’s popularity as a source of surrogate democracy. A virtually unregulated market has emerged. While some organizations offer a reputable service, there are any number of cowboys out there ready to hoodwink the unwitting into parting with substantial amounts of money in the hope of securing a democratic system they have long yearned for.
‘It should really have been no surprise to see Thailand take this international role,’ said one informed observer who asked to remain anonymous. ‘No country has the same level of experience in writing constitutions of all descriptions. Constitutional lawyers in most countries can expect at best to draft a minor constitutional amendment or two throughout their careers. Thailand has lawyers that have experience in drafting half a dozen complete constitutions.’
It is not just the number of constitutions at has attracted foreign clients. ‘Thailand has proven competence in both permanent and interim constitutions,’ notes constitutional expert Thammanoon Ok-jamnai. ‘The extraordinary length of Thai constitutions also works in their favour as does the range right across the political spectrum from mildly authoritarian to ultra-dictatorial.’
It is in fact the subtlety of Thai constitution-drafting that seems to have been the clinching factor in many cases. Noting the preponderance of military regimes and other oppressive governments among Thailand’s customers, many observers point to the fact that Thai-style democracy has certain attractions for this clientele.
‘At first glance, a Thai-conceived constitution looks attractively democratic and so may be acceptable to an unsuspecting domestic audience,’ noted one democracy broker with long experience the field. ‘But when they come to put Thai-style democracy into practice, it soon becomes apparent that the elite, whoever they may be in their society, retain virtually the same power and authority that they always had.’
Thai legislation to control surrogate democracy has existed in draft form for almost a decade. But moves to get the legislation enacted have been spurred by a recent scandal where a democracy was left abandoned with its Thai surrogate for being ‘deficient’.
It later transpired that this democracy had been commissioned by a regime with a long history of human rights violations, disregard for international law and belligerence towards its neighbours. Although this was not known at the time, it was later used by Thailand as a principled excuse for not delivering the democratic system to the donor.
Investigations into the surrogate democracy business since the scandal broke have revealed that many surrogates were not qualified to bring a democracy to term. The names and reputations of famed constitution-writers such as Meechai Ruchupan, Visanu Krue-ngam and Borwornsak Uwanno seem to have been co-opted and used quite freely by outfits with no genuine expertise in democracy gestation. Other scholars have offered surrogacy services without being properly licenced by the Constitution Writers Council.
Without a law, none of these charlatans can be prosecuted, although the Constitution Writers Council can blacklist offenders. This is no idle threat. ‘With the number of constitutions written in Thailand, this can represent a significant loss of income,’ said the Council in a press statement.
The proposed law will outlaw surrogate democracy for commercial purposes, with only ‘reasonable expenses’ to be paid by the donor to the surrogate. Many believe that the eventual law will have enough loopholes to ensure that surrogates are as amply rewarded as now.
Surrogacy will also be restricted to ‘states with whom Thailand shares international relations’. Cynics point out that this includes virtually the entire membership of the United Nations General Assembly and will be no real restriction on current practice.
Critics have noted that the draft legislation contains no provision for background checks on those seeking surrogate democracy services, opening the way for Thai-style democracy to be adopted by countries with international criminal records. The current Thai government sees no difficulty with this.
‘This only proves the superior flexibility of our Thai-style democracy,’ said a representative of the ruling military junta. ‘You can rule any way you want after using our surrogacy services and still call it democracy.’
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).