Weakening elected government officials, enhancing bureaucracy, and increasing relations with influential capitalists is what the military is trying to do to secure its legitimacy after “the transition”, says Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist from Thammasat University.
Many political academics and analysts are estimating how far the junta would draw Thailand back to. Some say it is 10 years ago to the pre-Thaksin era, while others say it is more than 30 years ago to the hybrid semi-democracy era.
Prajak Kongkirati, a political scientist from Thammasat University, for one, expects to see setbacks of more than 50 years to the full authoritarian era.
However, considering the emergence of political activism among Thai people in the past decade, Prajak said that the junta’s effort cannot be achieved with ease and it might possibly end up in violence.
1 Based upon your role as a researcher, what are the conditions of violence in Thai politics, both violence stemming from the government and from the population?
As we’ve seen, violence emerges all too easily in Thai politics today. This is largely because the Thai elite have closed off paths towards ending conflicts via peaceful means, one by one. If there is no political system for a resolving of conflict that each side can agree upon, then you have the underlying conditions for violence. Again, here it’s important to remember that this is something that the elite have made themselves – something that you can see clearly with the draft constitution, as it fails to address the fundamental problems that society is facing.
Historically, Thai history is fraught with these underlying conditions of violence. This is because, at each moment, the building of a democratic political system with strong political institutions was undercut. When the political system and social institutions are continually made weak, this makes the society prone to violence, something that you can see clearly in the coups d’état that arise so frequently in Thailand.
The conditions of violence are laid down, for the most part, by the state. When elites that control the state feel as though are losing control, they use violence in order to intensify their power – for instance, staging a coup or cracking down upon the population. Sometimes the state acts in more complicated ways: for instance, elite groups might collaborate with a certain part of the population in order to stage a crisis that gives the appearance of a “paralyzed state,” one that in turn paves the way for a coup.
Today in Thailand, we live in a state that uses power to the greatest extent since October 6, 1976. It stems from a fundamentally repressive nature; creating a climate of fear in order to control the population, cracking down upon those who might hold different opinions from the state, and consolidating power (as in this most recent draft constitution, where the army chooses the Prime Minister). It reflects quite clearly how those who have power need to increase and retain their own power. When a state like this faces resistance by and movements of the people, it does not hesitate to use this power to suppress the people by force.
Violence is most prevalent just after elections, especially if election results are disappointing to those in power and if they threaten to cause elites who have gained power from the coup to lose control. Elites might use force to stay in control, or, if a government stemming from elections attempts to amend the constitution (something that is in itself already very difficult), the elected government might face a serious counterattack by the old regime.
In addition to these cases, violence might arise if the repressive state proposes referendums to not pass, and where, in the wake of a referendum’s failure, powerful individuals might decide to adopt a constitution that is even less democratic in nature. If those in power do not listen to the will of the people in this case, then we have the underlying conditions for violence.
2 What do you think about this constitution draft? Will it be adopted or not? If it is not, how do you think it will be defeated (before, during or after the referendum)? And if it is adopted, what effects do you think might arise that would be of concern?
This constitution draft is designed to control majoritarian democracy by blunting the power of political parties. Voters and the government are both a part of our parliamentary democracy, but the one that we have is one that attempts to give most power to an elite minority who are not elected officials (e.g. the army, the judiciary, independent organizations, etc.). But it also attempts to do this while maintaining a façade of democracy – otherwise it would not be accepted as a legitimate election. For instance, we could have an election and an elected parliament in office, but a government elected via a new electoral system that ensures that political parties remain weak. Just look at the current actions of the NCPO [National Council for Peace and Order – the junta], which is quite confident that it can push the draft referendum through, much like the constitution of 2007 was pushed through. And, to add to this, don’t forget that we’re facing a deprivation of liberty far greater than in 2007 - the state still invests a great deal of resources in techniques of control, both soft and hard, all aimed at pushing through this constitutional referendum.
But this situation is still uncertain because of various groups of different colors have come out to say that they will refuse to accept the draft. Even the Democrat party announced that they wouldn’t accept the constitution, and issued to the junta pointed questions that indicated that they did not agree with the content of the constitution. One might say that both political parties and civil groups right now are reaching a consensus in rejecting the draft constitution. Of course, each group and each party has its own reason for rejecting the constitution, but the end result is that a “no” movement now has momentum. This is because people have begun to see that the constitution does not address the social problems that plague Thailand. Instead, it simply concentrates power into the hands of the elites and the bureaucracy and cuts all others – political parties, civil societies and ordinary voters alike - out of power and out of a role in government. It’s very clear that the negatives of this draft far outweigh the positives.
The only positive aspect that the constitution’s backers claim is that the draft constitution controls corruption. I have yet to see anyone finding another benefit to this constitution outside of this one issue. But a constitution that cuts back rights and freedoms and consolidates power into the hands of a bureaucracy cannot conceivably control corruption. In fact, looking historically, the bureaucracy has typically been the source of – not the cure for - corruption in Thai society. Public groups are beginning to see this point, even those organizations that previously supported the NCPO. Thus, the idea that the new constitution will have a positive effect suppressing corruption holds less and less weight. Ultimately, this draft does not create a transparent political system, one accountable to the public; it only takes power from elected politicians and puts it into the hands of unelected ones. So there is a lot at stake here in the referendum. This would be especially true if the referendum were to be conducted in an independent manner, with international observers.
For me, the issue that is the most distressing is that this constitution is not open for review or amendment at all – even the 2007 constitution was open to amendment, albeit with difficulty. With this draft, the door is closed for any kind of amendment. It has diminished the sovereignty of the people to correct its many flaws, and built a political system based around authoritarian elites, but at the same time is woefully inefficient in the way that it functions. It does not matter who comes into power in the government; the government under this constitution is weak by design. It functions only with difficulty. It’s what in English is called a “lame duck” government. This is a constitution designed on the basis of fear: fear of the population, and fear of political parties. Further, it is fundamentally unable to adapt to the changing needs of society, especially now that the Thai people have become so much more politically active. We need a government that is effective, not immune to amendment and change. What this constitution does is it leaves no path towards solutions, and make the conditions ripe for another round of violence.
3 Looking at this new constitution, it is clear that the military wants to establish itself as a political institution enshrined in the constitution. Or, to put it another way, the military wants “longevity” in the political system. What I’d like to ask you is why and for how long they seek this longevity.
The military sees itself remaining in power at the very least for five years, following what they’ve said publically. But it could be longer than this, because the Senate will remain in power at first for five years, and then the prime minister is eligible to run again twice for eight years each time. Further, in the constitution the military can return if needed for for special circumstances, such as the need to control “transition,” a term they have often repeated. Everyone knows that Thai society is in this state of large-scale transition [i.e. succession], and in this era of transition, elite groups are also changing in their power structure and relationship with each other. The military does not want a power vacuum to form in this fragile time. The army thinks that it alone is able to ensure that this transition is peaceful, but more than this, the army also wishes to define the direction that this transition takes. Remember that the military is the old ruling class in Thailand, one that has controlled power within Thai politics for a long, long time. Even though the country moved into a democratic system, the power of the military never disappeared fully from Thai politics.
After the 1997 economic crisis, the capitalist class leapt into politics in order to protect their own interests, and, much the same, in the most recent political crises the military has moved in to protect its own interests, especially in this transitional phase. The greatest worry here for the military is this idea of transition. Specifically, there are three factors that they fear most, including: 1) the traditional legitimacy of the ruling elite will face a decline, 2) political parties will come back into play stronger than ever, with an-ever growing basis amongst the population, and 3) the birth of mass politics based upon ideological and political interests. These three factors are the reasons that the military attempts to reassert their own position, power and influence, because each of these factors lie beyond the control of the military. This is especially true with regards to electoral politics, a field in which the military has historically had no real skill and cannot compete. (This is the case in many countries where the military intervenes in order to preserve its own power.)
Hence the military feels the need to “control the game” in order to ensure that the new political order looks very much like the old political order, an order that has long existed and that is now threatened with change. In “controlling the game,” the army limits the power of political parties gained from elections to pose a significant risk to the elite. At the same time, they suppress popular groups of every color in order to prevent the possibility of a mass movement during this time of “transition.”
In addition to the reasons I’ve already mentioned, there is another, important point. The military is in the process of creating a relationship with other powers, namely, influential capitalists (this is similar to the Sarit era, where soldiers and some groups of capitalists formed an alliance for mutual benefit). From what we’ve seen already after the coup d’état, the military seeks to place itself in the status of a hegemonic ruler, dominating power in the long term and not allowing others to access to this power or to form an alternate elite group. We can clearly see this in the budget: increased privileges, increased salaries, increased troops, an expansion of the situations in which military power can be used, the placing of military personnel in charge of state enterprises and state as well as independent organizations of all kinds, and, most importantly, enshrining this power within the constitution. This is equivalent to creating a political party from the army itself – they have 250 votes in the House already (half of all representatives) who are entirely unelected.
4 As a professor of the politics surrounding the October [14th and 6th] political uprisings, do you think that the people will rise to overthrow the government this time also? If not, what do you think are the conditions, context, and environment that might cause such an uprising to happen, especially in light of the various scandals, corruption, and crackdowns that have emerged under this government?
I addressed this earlier, in response to the first question. The past decade has seen the most engagement and cohesion of public groups in recent Thai history. It’s been almost like a political soap opera that takes on a role and influence in society! But at present, in the past two years after the coup d’état, one might ask why these public movements have not acted against the junta. I think that there are two factors: the sheer level of control over citizens and suppression of rights that the junta has carried out, and secondly, the polarization within the public sphere and between these groups. With regards to this first factor, most data indicate that this coup has an extremely repressive character, far more so than the coup in 2006. Since the day that they seized power, they have moved to arrest and lock down key political players, and each day the level of control does not decrease – even student groups are arrested and sent to prison simply for voicing their innocent opinions. And as the referendum approaches, this control is likely to increase. So one must understand this atmosphere of fear in order to understand why popular anti-junta movements do not appear, because no one wants to risk death or imprisonment. In past situations like these, those who have been killed have been ordinary citizens – when you’re dead, you can no longer seek justice!
With regards to the second of these conditions – the divide between political groups in Thailand, this clearly different from the events of 14 October 1973 or May of 1992. At that time, the conflict was between the people and the state. Even though there were varying points of view, the consensus in 1973 and 1992 was that military dictatorship was no longer acceptable, and the belief that Thai society had a better choice rather than rule by military oligarchy. But now, this consensus no longer exists. Everyone knows how these two sides are divided: at one extreme there is the belief that the military regime is better than a rule by politicians. This doesn’t mean that people believe that the military run the country better than political parties or are more transparent, but that group fundamentally hates politicians more. It is an ideology driven by a hatred of politics itself.
The result of this polarization is that the elites today can more easily remain in control. In other words, the junta is the group that profits most from this social divide. Regardless of poor performance in governance or the lessening of political rights, they can remain comfortably in power because each other group in Thai society is weakened, as these polarized groups cannot come together to call for change. This divide has gone on for many years, and is still very strong. Even forming a very basic consensus is still quite hard to achieve, because of a lack of trust between different civil groups. It isn’t difficult to understand an opposing view, but the conflict and chronic hatred between the two groups is still so high. As long as this state of polarization exists, the army will still be able to remain in control indefinitely.
This time, the way out of the rule by a military elite is difficult. It needs a new social consensus between the various groups. Out of a unified public sector, we can make a better Thai society in the future, one where we don’t have to live under this state of fear and hatred. But our new politics of hope relies upon every group in the population being able to come together to build this new future for the country. This doesn’t mean that they have to come together in a demonstration or protest; they might come together in other meaningful, ways. For instance, this might start as a call for power-sharing in the referendum or a call for a constitution with real substance, one that the population is able to really have a part in a greater way than the present one – one that is not already set down by an elite group and over which the population doesn’t have a real choice. Of course, all of this is very difficult and is something that will take real effort to achieve.
Translated from Thai to English by Andrew Alan Johnson.