People should determine their own constitution: Prachamati

With uncertainty about whether the Thai junta will hold a public referendum on the draft constitution or impose it without public consent, alternative media outlets and think tanks in Thailand came together to open an online forum titled ‘Prachamati’ (referendum) to let people speak their mind about the draft constitution which is currently being debated by the junta’s National Reform Council (NRC).

The website was founded with the cooperation of Prachatai and Thaipublica, alternative media agencies, iLaw, an internet platform promoting civil laws related to freedom of expression, and the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies of Mahidol University. Prachamati was opened to collect votes on the draft charter last week.

In a country that tries to label itself as ‘democratic’, a space for people to voice their opinions must not be denied, especially when it comes to opinions on the draft constitution, which is the highest law of the nation that all people will be living under. Therefore, it is not too far-fetched to say that Prachamati will provide a vital space for people to exchange ideas on the draft constitution before it is enacted by the junta.

To learn more about Prachamati, Prachatai talked to Sarinee Achavanuntakul, a renowned Thai writer, translator, researcher, the president of Foundation for Internet and Civic Culture (aka Thai Netizen Network) and the co-founder of Thaipublica, who is one of the masterminds behind Prachamati, asking her why she and the other founding organisations of the website think that a referendum on the draft charter is important.

Is this the first time that online media outlets and an online based civil organisation have come to work together on this particular issue [providing an online forum for the referendum on the new charter]?

I think it’s the first time because in the past we only cooperated with each other loosely, such as by sharing news with each other. But this is the first time that we have literally come together and I think that there will be more chances in the future.

Sarinee Achavanuntakul

Looking at the current political situation and the draft constitution, if a referendum is eventually held, do you think that it will be a way out of Thailand’s political crisis?

I think it depends on the conditions of the referendum. We already have the lessons from the referendum on the 2007 Charter not even 10 years back. The 2007 referendum was, I think, held under negative conditions and in a forceful manner because at the time the government was saying that there must be a referendum for the country to be able to move forwards, so they were implying that without it the country could not progress. They [the then government] were imposing a kind of thinking and supporting it without giving any other choice to the people. Therefore, this time, if there is another referendum, it must be done without forcing people. People who deliberately vote no to the new charter should be able to say [in the referendum ballots] which constitution should be enacted if they reject the current charter draft, the 1997 Charter or the 2007 Charter.      

Therefore, it depends how the referendum is designed. I think making the referendum resemble what was done before is not enough to find [political] solutions because we must look at the conditions under which it is held. To put it in simple words, we have to question if the choices of accepting and not accepting the current charter draft are calibrated equally because if people say no and there is no information provided about what would happen next, then it means that there are certain implications. It will be a referendum where accepting [the draft charter] is being forced upon people. Therefore, this time if there is going to be a referendum it should be a just one.      

Some believe that this website will provide space for people to discuss and debate [the new charter]. However, some people think that those who access Prachamati or who are interested in the draft constitution would be people who are already interested in politics, so the website might not provide a wider space for people. What do you think about this?

I think it also depends how the issues on the website are selected and presented. Actually, it depends on how to put each issue into a question form, such as do you agree or disagree with the merging of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Office of the Ombudsman of Thailand? People in general might think that it is not related to them and might not be interested in this matter. Nonetheless, if we want to attract their attention to the matter, we can’t just ask them this sort of question directly. We must think forward about the negative or positive results [of the charter draft’s contents]. We have to present the questions in this manner instead, so the challenge is how to frame the questions because on certain issues, before one could understand it deeply we might have to put up a series of questions, perhaps up to five questions to get to the point.

This is challenging, but at the same time it’s a good opportunity for journalists to think of ways to present things. The plus side on this is that in the digital age everything is quick and the statistics on things can be recorded easily. Journalists can analyse and reflect on the data of how many people respond to the questions and how much time did they take to find out what are the topics that people are highly interested about and why.

We also don’t believe that those who participate [in the website] will be only those who are [politically] ‘hard-core’ because the effects [of the new charter] will be very broad since it even mentions the ‘duties’ of citizens. Therefore, it depends largely on how we present the questions.

Is it difficult to have a referendum [on the draft constitution] in this manner?

I don’t know. Partially, we understand the feeling of some people who just want to leave it, but if we just leave it without doing anything then nothing would happen at all and there would be no way to have a referendum. It’s like an election, I think. At times, you feel that none of the candidates attract you and you choose to stay at home, which is fine since it’s your choice of course. But if you do this you have to know that you are also losing your rights, so when those who have won an election do certain things [you disagree with], your complaints would be weak because you chose not to vote in the first place. I think this is similar to [creating Prachamati to poll opinions on the new charter], which means that you have to try your best first.

One thing for sure is that holding a referendum [on the new charter] is not about certain political factions. I think that has to be made clear and I hope that Prachamati will make people see that it’s not about the red or yellow shirts (anti-establishment red shirts and pro-establishment yellow shirts), but it’s more about basic rules. No matter who you hate or like, there should be a referendum because it’s the highest law. People should see it in this manner. Thai [politics] is very divisive to the point that many issues are being viewed as exclusive to the red shirts or to the yellow shirts. But in fact, this is not about political factions at all. It is about how people should come together to express their opinions as citizens. It is about how people think about the rule book written [by the authorities]. If it was 10 years ago, when there was no social media and websites weren’t as common, it would have been difficult to survey what people think and people had to wait for them [the authorities] to organise forums to let them speak. Now, however, it is not necessary because we have Facebook and twitter to express opinions easily.

How much impact do you think Prachamati will have?

I think the number of people who participate matters. If we can attract a large number of people to become aware [of the importance of referendum] OK, because what we are calling for is very little. We just want people to say if they agree or disagree with some of the content of the constitution. It’s not like we are drafting a people’s version of a new charter or anything like that. This is still something very little, but it will become more powerful when people come to state their opinions, because it already has meaning in itself. If people come and use this space together it will be more clear and resolute and have much more impact. If more people express their thoughts [on the draft charter], it will be more meaningful to those who have the power to decide because no matter where they come from they will have to seek legitimacy from the people anyhow.

I think there is a clear example of this when we united against the first version of the Digital Economy Bill (a controversial bill drafted by the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, which was criticised as a bill to maintain national security online). At first, there were people who thought that it (opposition against the bill) would be impossible because it was about national security, but when we resorted to running a campaign against it online it appeared that the bill was halted and reconsidered by the authorities. Although it was only a bill not a draft constitution, it was rebuffed and reconsidered, so then why can’t we promote a referendum on the draft charter which is even closer to us?

This means that if the vote from the website is out it will be submitted to the drafters of the new constitutional draft?

Well, in reality, we can’t really tell what will happen. Nonetheless, from the website one thing that I would like to see happen is for mainstream media outlets, such as TV or newspapers, to use the information from the website for news reports. For example, when a TV channel reports about the referendum, it can cite information from the Prachamati website about how many people agree or disagree on particular issues. I think it’s going to become a public database which is already useful. However, at the end we have to wait and see in what direction [the information from the website] can be used.

At the same time, the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) are making a survey of 1,000 people from each province on the draft charter.

I think it’s a good thing and I agree with their plan, but if they want to make it more meaningful they should publicise the results of the survey as well. They should also reveal the questions in the survey because as someone not selected to participate in the survey, I would like to know what they asked.

Do you think that the [CDC’s] survey can indicate anything?

We have to ask what the purposes are of holding this survey. Academically speaking, a statistics lessons can tell you that if there is X number of people, how many people should be selected to represent the rest. I don’t think that there is any damage in that of course because there is an academic principle which can be applied to this, but the thing is a thousand people from each province is a very small number. In small provinces, there are at least 100,000 people, so a thousand out of this number is only one percent. How can only one percent of people [ from each province] represent the rest?

The most important point that we have to ask is what the purposes of this survey are. If it is to allow people to have the chance to amend and improve the draft charter, this is decent no matter what and should be done. But if it’s just to preserve the current draft charter by saying that there is already a result from the survey, so that a referendum is no longer needed, this is wrong. In the end, a referendum is very important and should not be reserved just for a select few, so it depends on what the purposes of this survey really are.

If the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) does not hold a referendum and the draft constitution is passed as it is without amendment, do you think it will create conditions for further conflict?

I think for sure there is no way that it [the draft charter] is going to last. Even the first draft has already been heavily criticised and many people in political circles have already suggested that it won’t help to solve [political] problems.   

Personally, I have not read the draft thoroughly enough, but I looked into particular parts which I’m interested in, such as the part on the establishment of the National Ethics Assembly which I think is not an effective way to solve the problem at all. In their mind, they must have thought that in order to control ‘bad people’, they must form a kind of organisation headed by ‘good people’. But eventually there is the question whether these so-called ‘good people’ are really decent. Who says so and who picks them? How do we know that they are really good people and if there are problems with this organisation [National Ethics Assembly] in the future do they have to form another organisation to control this organisation?

This kind of organisation also lessens the power of the people instead of doing something better, such as creating a check and balance mechanism. Of course, many say that the politicians have ways to do bad things without being traced because we have no channels to check on them. However, instead of creating a ‘moral’ mechanism to control politicians, there is another much simpler way. You can just say that the state has to reveal all information to the public without waiting for people to ask for it. Just say that we want a state where information is open, where information on [state] contracts and concessions must be open to the public in forms that are easily accessible. If there is something like this, which is an attempt to make things transparent, then everyone can easily check things. When people have the information and see that something is wrong, they can just file a complaint with the organisations which deal with corruption without having to form another organisation. Eventually, an oversight organisation will encounter problems because people will ask who they are, because they are not elected by the people.

Currently, do you think that the authorities have strayed too far from listening to the people?

Not too far I think. Nothing is too late. From one angle, in the past 10 months, there are some issues where they [the authorities] have backed down and compromised, such as the Digital Economy Bill and the 21st Petroleum Concession. Therefore, there are still many possibilities for this, especially when it comes to the call for a referendum on the constitution which we will be all living under. People shouldn’t just restrain themselves by thinking that some people belong to different political affiliations from them, but should think that if we don’t do anything as citizens, there might be some people who would claim to know what we think. Therefore, if we don’t want people to claim that they know our thoughts, we have to come out to express our own opinions in public.         

Translated into English by Kongpob Areerat

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