Look beyond the August referendum with Chaturon Chaisang

The embattled politician from the Pheu Thai Party believes that no matter what the referendum result is, elections must be held by 2017 but in any event democracy will not return to Thailand in the near future.  
 
What is the future of Thailand’s politics ? Why do some Thais decide to ‘vote yes,’ while some go for ‘vote no,’ and some decide not to go to vote at all? Most importantly, what is the possible result of the referendum? These questions certainly are in the minds of those who closely follow the situation of Thailand's politics in the past couple months. And to answer those questions, Prachatai presents an exclusive interview with Chaturon Chaisang, an experienced and anti-junta politician from the Pheu Thai Party. 
 
 
Chaturon Chaisang
 
What issue in the Mechai constitution concerns you most? 
 
What is most problematic is that this constitution will give powers to individuals and organizations that have not been elected which are greater than the powers of the government and parliament. Those who have not been elected and especially those who have been put in place by the NCPO will together decide the PM, which is the equivalent of setting up a government with NCPO people as the core and laying out the future administration of the country. With the national strategy and the reform plan already specified, the governments will be prevented from setting policies to solve political problems in accordance with the needs of the people. The government will have to listen to the 250 senators appointed by the NCPO. And apart from this, there are still the independent organizations and the Constitutional Court which will limit the government to another level. And as regards issuing various laws, the senate, which may be able to monitor the government, will dominate voting in parliament, and in the House, MPs will not be able to issue laws in response to people’s needs in the same way. In the end, it will mean that we have a government and parliament that will not be able to respond to the needs of the public.  This situation will last for a long time because the senators who come from the NCPO will have a term of 5 years, covering two elections for PM.  This situation will move the country backward. The problems of the people will not be solved and will turn into conflict. One more problem is that this constitution cannot be amended. Amendment is so difficult that you can say it is impossible. This will lead politics into crises where there is no easy way out.
 
What do you think of the political climate prior to the referendum?
 
The climate around the referendum obviously makes it not free and fair. Many critics have been arrested, threatened, intimidated and denied freedom of expression. The mass media have also not had the opportunity to propose dissident opinions or debate diverse views. So the people have received very little information from critics. Meanwhile, information on the content of the draft constitution has not been sent to most people. A summary has been sent to only a few and the summary is like an inducement with content which does not really match the draft in favour of the draft constitution. It was done by the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), and the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT). The drafters and their supporters use machinery and budget of the state and use large numbers of state personnel to give explanations that talk only of the good points or blatantly encourage people to vote to accept the draft constitution. And not allowing domestic and international organizations to observe this referendum increases concerns that there will be voting from the polling to the counting of votes. You can say that the referendum is not free and fair and there are increasing threats of violence.  There have been exaggerations that a fake constitution has been drafted, the content has been distorted, there will be referendum chaos, or the referendum will collapse. In fact there has been nothing at all. Documents have been released that have a different view, but this is not a crime. This is no big thing but it has been seriously played up, like claiming there is terrorism to justify intimidation and blocking the expression of dissident opinions.  
 
What do you think of the role of ECT in organizing this referendum?
 
Theoretically, the ECT should be an organization that is independent from the state and government agencies so it can hold elections and referendums in a neutral manner. But this time, the ECT has an obviously biased role. It has issued criteria which it claims follow the Referendum Act but which are in fact excessive, emphasizing prohibitions likely to lead to false arrests, but not promoting what can be done or what should happen, like all sides expressing their opinions and providing information. The ECT has also helped the CDC and NLA to produce and disseminate documents which are clearly biased. If there are to be such documents, they should be the work of those responsible for drafting the constitution and the ECT should inspect whether the content is neutral, not participate as if it is certifying them.  The ECT rules also restrict freedoms, like the rules applied to the media, especially television. We can see that discussions on the draft constitution are severely restricted. Only one channel, or not many, can discuss it but on few occasions and on few issues, instead of opening it for all channels to debate freely.  They have also set rules that there must be both supporters and opponents talking with each other. But the drafter or supporters use the tactic of not participating by citing the ECT rules so there are no programmes. This has the characteristics of a conspiracy to deliberately create these conditions, which can be regarded as the blocking of freedoms. The work of the ECT is mostly the opposite of what it should be. 
 
If the constitution does not pass, do you think there will still be an election in 2017 as the junta promised?  
 
Whether the constitution is accepted or not, there must be an election in 2017 as planned. This is the word of the NCPO themselves. The leaders and those in the junta have said this so many times. It has become like a social contract. Changing this is not an easy matter and I think that people in society are beginning to have the gradually increasing feeling that they want the election as planned or at least not delayed because our country is in a poor condition from being under a regime which is undemocratic and an unelected government for a very long time. Therefore, whether it passes or not there, there must be an election as planned and society will call for that as well.  But if it does not pass, of course, we have to draft a new constitution. Now civil society groups which are interested in politics from different colours and sides have jointly called for the referendum to be freer and for the people to participate in drafting the constitution if the current draft does not pass the referendum. Many groups that came together think that there is a peaceful solution through discussion. This is a good approach where we can have a constitution which is more widely accepted in society.  The discussions include discussions with the NCPO and the five rivers as well. So that is method where there is no conflict.  If the NCPO accepts this idea as feasible and is open to discussion, it will make the drafting of a new constitution more consistent with the views of the majority. Drafting a new constitution may not require a long time, because many groups in society have sufficiently similar ideas on drafting a constitution. But to do it well takes time. There is way to have elections first, maybe by taking one constitution to enable elections. When we have an elected government and parliament, we can set up the process for drafting a constitution. This may take rather a long time but we will get a good constitution. This is just one proposal, but I again stress that it does not have to be exactly like this. But what should happen is that when the constitution does not pass, there should be an opening for many sides to join in broad discussions and finding a solution together.  
 
Actually, the bigger problem that will happen to Thailand is if the constitution passes. People may easily see believe that if it passes, there will be an election as planned and everything will slowly get better. In fact, after the constitution passes, the junta will remain in full power for a year and six or nine months, or may be strengthened even more as it could claim that it has gained the approval of the people. The undemocratic climate will increase. The actions of the NCPO and other organizations will occur in a situation where the people have no freedom and no participation. That will be a large problem because if any laws are enacted in that period, it will be very difficult to amend them, because they will claim that these are reform laws, This laws will be a crisis for the country for a long time.      
 
Some people have not yet received the full version of the draft and most people still do not know anything about the referendum. How much of a problem do you think this is?
 
It is a pretty big problem because the ECT’s has worked very slowly and it looks like it was intended not to disseminate the draft constitution so that people could know the truth. Maybe they had to focus only on the important issues and join with the CDC and NLA in producing the booklet for the referendum which explains only one side, stressing the good points. They intended not to explain points that people have widely criticized. This means that people see only the good points and not the parts that people have criticized, which are very damaging issues, because the ECT is supposed to be neutral, but has validated a document that is not neutral.     
 
In your visits to the field, what have you found have been the thoughts of most people?
 
Since there has been no dissemination of full draft, people have only heard about the important issues. They give importance to two things: first, political issues, power issues, elections, political parties; second issues that directly affect people such as what the universal healthcare will be like, the policy on 12 years of free education, old-age pensions, or interventions in agricultural production.  Apart from that there is a tendency to feel that if the constitution passes, the election will come quicker.  People’s decisions are based on these ideas. You can’t say that this is wrong.  But what is regrettable is that they haven’t looked in detail.  People’s decisions will largely be based on political reasons.  There is no as much debate or listening to different views as there should be.  This is the weakest point of this referendum.  Feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the administration of the country, the failure to solve economic problems, the loss of freedom and the heavy intimidation, also have quite a large influence on people’s decisions.      
 
What do you think about the movement to reject the draft to keep the NCPO longer?
 
I think they are not many. People who really want the NCPO to stay longer are more likely to accept the draft as they know that the NCPO can control the administration of the through the senate for many more years, and the National Reform Plan and the Strategic Plan will have an effect for a long time. There is the idea of passing the draft because people want the NCPO to go quickly. This is not a small group but is getting smaller.  This group are those who have received superficial information and are thinking simplistically. They think that once there is a constitution, the NCPO will come to an immediate end and they will get an elected government free of the NCPO. But if this group learns the facts, they will understand that if the draft passes, the NCPO will be there for a long time. This grou is growing every day over the last 2 months. 
 
Another trend is the boycott or “No Vote” This trend was there at the beginning but has weakened so that today people understand well the lack of freedom and injustice of the referendum process. People are also blocked from expressing their views and this makes the referendum unfair to the people. But since the “Vote No” trend is much stronger, those who once supported a boycott should change their minds and choose to vote one way or the other. So this should not have much effect. 
 
I believe that the NCPO has suddenly realized itself that if the constitution does not pass, their own status will be very shaky.  The credibility of the NCPO will collapse. They will have to reduce dissatisfaction by quickly finalizing a new draft constitution and hold an election as planned. It’s more likely to happen this way because in this referendum the people will not decide whether they want the NCPO or not, but whether or not they want the draft constitution of the five rivers but which was basically organized by the NCPO.  If “Vote No” wins, it means that the people don’t want the junta to stay for a long time and don’t want a continuation in power for another 10 or 20 years as the NCPO wants.  
 
Do you estimate that “Yes” or “No” will win?
 
At the beginning, I thought that there was more chance that it would pass. But today, I think that the chance of it passing is small. The chance that it will not pass is much higher and is getting even higher as the referendum approaches. But there are two concerns. First, there might be a electoral fraud which can overturn the results but I don’t think this it can be done easily. Second, the referendum might be cancelled for some reason or other, but fortunately, there has been no chaos against the referendum, making it very difficult to find an excuse for cancelling. So personally I think it will certainly not pass.  But people must not be complacent. Those who do not agree with the draft constitution must not neglect their rights and not vote and must go and vote sincerely and the result will follow.
 
If there is no effective fraud, I think there will be a clear win.  But I strongly believe that we must not be careless. The people must help each other by voting in great numbers and preventing all kinds of fraud. They may use smart phones to the best advantage. In Black May 1992, the people beat a dictatorship by using ordinary mobile phones for communicating with each other. Nowadays, communication by smartphones and social media enables us to record video clips and share them widely within a short time. This is an important tool to prevent fraud and prevent impersonation and miscounting.  People should observe polling and be aware and monitor polling stations using their own smart phones to advantage.
 
How long do you think it will be before we return to a democratic system?
 
I have been asked with this question many times since I first became a politician 30 years ago. I was asked by Thais and foreigners. When foreigners asked me this question, I did not think about it very deeply. I would simply answer that it would be a long time, 10 or 15 years, something like that. After the coup in 1991, there was Black May in 1992 and I thought that we would have democracy for a long time and it would develop. Then we got the 1997 Constitution and politics was more on the right track until the 2006 coup. I was asked the same question and my answer was also the same, saying that it would be a very long time but I could not think in terms of years.  But in 5 or 10 years there would be no democracy. And that’s what in fact happened. 10 years later, in 2016 we are living in a less democratic situation than in 2006. So we are in a situation of being held back, between the forces of the elite, those who have no faith in democracy and who do not believe that the people can govern themselves, and the democracy side that has organizations and a political party and supporters and those ready to vote and those from civil society who want democracy.  In the conflict within the democracy side there is no group that is decisively above the others and they are holding each other back.  On the other side, those who have no faith in the democratic system have got back on top. So the chance to be a democracy soon is very difficult because is democracy must rely on the understanding of a large number of people and the powerful forces in society must have an understanding of democracy. But today the powerful forces that are important and have a loud voice are the elite, business groups or the upper middle class. These people still do not have an understanding and belief in the idea of democracy. So it is difficult for us to have democracy in the near future.          
 
If the constitution is rejected, it will halt the continuation of power and the efforts of the NCPO to keep the country under an undemocratic regime for a long time. After that, we may stand firm together again on how to bring back democracy. But it is not that we can do it immediately. It takes time for different sides to learn and develop democracy. But if this draft constitution passes, society will be under an undemocratic regime for a very long time, in terms of numbers, maybe 10 years when we are under a very undemocratic system. And I don’t know whether we will move backwards more than today because this is establishing a system that ties up democracy very tightly in complex structures and mechanisms to make this system secure. The problem is that this system cannot respond to the needs of the people and will lead to conflict. If we lack understanding and democratic development, this problem may lead to the use of force and another seizure of power and we will be back at the beginning or maybe even further back than today.  And the word ‘today’ goes back another 40-50 years.  What is most important for me is that we must promote many sides to have a better understanding of the ideas of democracy, rights and freedoms and the basis of justice and to help in building alternatives for society so that society sees how, if the country is a democracy, it benefits the people.