Pol-la-muang: The making of superior Thais

Thailand’s 2015 Constitution debuted last week, when the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) submitted the draft for consideration before the National Reform Council (NRC). Although it was not to be distributed to the public, the document leaked onto the internet. The draft raises several concerns, among which is the emergence of a privileged group of Thais.

Borwornsak Uwanno, the President of the CDC, explained before the NRC that the new constitution aimed to empower the people against dictatorial politicians. His Article 26 has transformed Thais from pra-cha-chon (people) to pol-la-muang (citizens). Although semantic meanings shall not be debated here, his pol-la-muang implies more loyalty and commitment to the state. One must obey the law, respect rights, liberties, and equality, adhere to the right virtues, serve the community, learn to be self-dependent, and promote social unity. The Constitution demands pol-la-muang to help conserve local wisdom, national cultural heritage, and natural resources. In other words, the Constitution is invading people’s forum internum. The people have to think the right thoughts and do the right tasks.

Most importantly, the Constitution creates several independent agencies specifically for pol-la-muang to perform their duties. These services shall be rewarded as Article 27 describes that those pol-la-muang who serve with honor and dedication, without prejudice, are entitled to receive remuneration.

It is no secret that drafting a constitution in Thailand yields preferential benefits for a few fortunate souls. Academics in laws and political science, high-ranking officers, and well-known non-governmental activists are often involved in such law making. In addition to financial returns, benefits come as formalized political power. Membership in the CDC always improves a resume. Such credentials later pave the way into positions in governmental agencies they have created, such as the Senate, the Constitution Court, and other Independent Accountability Agencies. The Constitution business is a lucrative one.

But never before have these benefits been expanded to this sheer scale. The number of independent agencies in this 2015 Constitution has exploded in order to ostensibly promote direct democracy and to empower the citizens.

There have already been the Election Commission, the National Counter-Corruption Commission, the Ombudsman, and the National Human Rights Commission, although the latter two are now combined into one. New additions will involve more pol-la-muang to check the government’s exercise of power. The National Virtues Council will set ethical standards for public servants and provide background and moral checks for candidates seeking public position. It can investigate accusations of ethical violations, which may lead to impeachment. The Reform Council and the National Reform Strategy Commission will strategize and direct Thailand’s reform. They may propose bills that are necessary for the reform directly to the Senate or hold referendums to force the government to implement their policies. The National Reconciliation Commission, as the name suggests, would promote peace, understanding, and unity. The government is obligated to provide enough funding for its operation. The Citizen Council may be set up in each province so citizens can audit the local administration. The list of new agencies goes on.

Although these bodies advertise for greater involvement from all Thais, in reality nomination requires heavy lobbying. As a result, only a few technocrats, the very same who drafted the constitution, would be qualified to provide the expertise and moral standards demanded by the constitution. These pol-la-muangs are no less hungry for power than their political counterparts. But by avoiding the “dirty game” of electoral politics, they can claim that their superior morals entitle them to these councils and commissions.

But might these councils and commissions become tools of political accountability? Since these councils and commissions possess tremendous power to initiate public policies and punish the elected government, they would help paralyze the government and underestimate the importance of electoral politics. But the Constitution provides no channels to hold them accountable, so they are probably a liability, not an asset. The result would be highly fragmented politics. Worse, once these agencies establish their turfs, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to dismantle them. Possibly some of them will outlast the 2015 Constitution and transfer themselves into the following constitutions. To add insult to injury, these positions are even paid significantly higher than a normal government agency while contributing so little to the country. Financially these councils and commissions are a waste. They are constructed to be the perfect sinecures.

To assign pol-la-muangs the power to control the government is dangerous. Thailand is facing a crisis of inequality. People are already bitter about the unfairness in economic, social, and political contests. These apparatuses aggravate the crisis because they reflect the CDC’s distrust in the majority. The constitution seems to be built upon paternalistic and moralistic ideologies. Despite the rhetoric of empowerment, the idea of the committed citizen is just an attempt to entrench the influence of the elitist minority in Thai politics. Pol-la-muang, with high morals, lavish salaries, and anti-majoritarian missions, will probably do Thailand more harm than good.

 

Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang is a constitutional law scholar in Thailand.