Nidhi Eoseewong: Implications of draft charter referendum, its results

In an interview with Prachatai following the constitutional referendum, Nidhi Eoseewong maintained that the results were due to the lack of free and open debate and criticism. Many people consequently made what seemed the easy choice giving the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) a sort of split legitimacy: While Thais may accept the results, it will be difficult to claim legitimacy with the international community where the process has been seen as unjust from the start. Despite the referendum result, he holds out hope for democracy future.

Having followed the referendum returns all evening, how do you interpret the results?

The results reflect the refusal to allow free and open discussion and debate in the referendum process. Many people made the easy choice, for themselves, for the nation or for whatever reason, such as preventing more conflict and violence, but without knowing or thinking through the significance of this kind of constitution.

At the same time, the NCPO sought with the referendum to underwrite its claim to legitimacy, both domestically and internationally. It realized only half its wish. Although Thais may accept the results, it will be difficult to get recognition for legitimacy internationally given that everyone has seen conduct of the referendum process as unfair from the beginning.

Looking at the results by region, the Northeast, the Upper North and the three Southern Border provinces voted against the proposed constitution rather decisively. How should we understand that?

The data are not yet all in and I haven’t had a chance for thorough and detailed analysis. However, I suspect that this reflects the level to which they have been integrated into Thai society. In other words, the people of provinces that rejected the proposed constitution are, for whatever reason, not yet able to consider themselves equally part of the Thai Kingdom as are those in the Central region. It is clear that those of the three Southern Border provinces do not feel that they enjoy equality on a par with those of other regions of Thailand. Similarly, for those of the Upper North and of Isan, the level of integration into the nation is not equal. Citizens of these three regions feel that they do not have equality with others. This is just a quick answer. I can’t guarantee that it’s correct.

Before the referendum, many in the political sphere and the main parties announced that they would not accept the proposed constitution, yet the referendum passed. Does this indicate that the electorate ignored the political sphere?

In normal elections, whether local or national, politicians have far more opportunity to interact with the electorate. While campaigning, they form relationships and make connections between themselves and the people. Some may say it’s a matter of vote buying. But I don’t believe it’s just that. These connections put the people in a position to push for the common benefit. That’s why they choose a candidate. But if you set up a referendum on a new constitution and you don’t allow politicians to campaign, building up networks through their connections with the electorate, I ask you, will the people have enough faith in those politicians to follow their lead? No. Nowhere in the world do people have that much faith in politicians. In building networks, politicians make promises to work for the common benefit. Without that, Suthep would be meaningless, the Democrat Party would be meaningless, the Phuea Thai Party would be meaningless. I don’t think there would be any Thaksin, Abhisit or Suthep supporters anywhere in Thailand if they hadn’t been able to connect with people and build networks for the common benefit.

In truth, this is democracy. Coming together to form positions that we believe will benefit ourselves or all. If they forbade us working for the benefit for ourselves or for all like this, who would be so very loyal to Thaksin, Abhisit or Suthep? Nobody. At the same time I don’t believe anyone is that loyal to Prayut. It’s just that in the current situation, asking you to vote on a constitution that you have only partly read, you’ll choose what you think is best for you, not least by not offending anyone, not least by not questioning and so on. Different people have different ideas of benefit. It was an opportunity to make a decision with insufficient information. Insufficient to the point of not being a real decision. We don’t choose our wives by lottery and nobody chooses a constitution like this.

How do you see the political structure now that the constitution has passed although much organic law has yet to be written?

The advantaged classes of our country, military generals, major capitalists, the traditional elites and so on, have for decades been united in their concern to prevent the people from making the decisions. The question is, given the current situation, the question is: “Will these classes now withdraw and allow the people to choose freely?” No. In the past, whether the under the Constitution of ‘97 or of ’07 people more and more turned out to choose according to their own minds, their own needs, making their own preferences and we saw the advantages of the ruling classes decline. This coup d’état was the work of the ruling classes, economic, political and cultural, a move to preserve and maintain their power and privilege over others. The constitution was clearly drafted directly for this purpose. The people have the right to a certain amount of choice, but your choice is not decisive. A number of supervisory bodies will be set up to prevent the choices of the people from having real impact on the conduct of public policy. There will be overseers constantly watching to bend policy implementation to the wishes of the ruling classes economically, politically and socially so as to maintain their own power while creating the appearance of democracy.

Given that their efforts to entrench a new regime of power have led to this constitutional referendum, do you think that this kind of situation will continue for long or will changes or other forces make the architecture of power they are trying to create unsustainable?

I can’t make a direct prediction. But I can say that the means of maintaining power written into this constitution are unworkable in today’s world. The means by which ruling classes hold onto power are much more complex, hidden and devious. Extra-parliamentary power is not exercised by direct control of parliament. That truly cannot work. In countries like the United States and England the ruling classes conceal their exercise and maintenance of power in different ways. For example, candidates for the President of the US spend hundreds of millions of dollars campaigning. How could the common people possible compete? There are most certainly hidden powerful groups manipulating the president, legislators etc. from behind the scenes. We just can’t see them clearly. But here, they are too visible to continue in this way in today’s world. If the economic, political and social ruling factions wish to hold onto power they must think anew and devise ways of being less visible. I think they haven’t sufficiently thought this through. The Thai ruling factions are too narrow minded to exercise the power directly in their hands and allow the people to manage the rest. They won’t do that. They want to control everything down to the smallest details. This is their problem. This approach won’t work internationally in the modern world.

Is there still reason for hope among those longing for greater freedom and democracy?

Don’t lose hope! Denying the rights and voices of the oppressed as in former times is now unsustainable. The economy has changed profoundly. The changes did not happen during the Thaksin administration but began in the post-6 October 1976 era, the times of General Kriangsak and General Prem, as the economy gradually but significantly changed, to put it simply, from subsistence agriculture to a market economy. Once someone has come into the market economy, it is impossible to go back, and he or she requires some level of bargaining power. He or she might have less than others, but must have increasing levels of bargaining power. This is unavoidable, and everyone must be given bargaining power. But you conceal your power in such a way as to maintain bargaining power. This right here is the problem: the Thai ruling classes don’t have the smarts or ability to maintain high levels of bargaining power for the people. Don’t forget, there are only a very few members of the ruling classes, but those with some intelligence are able to exert control in such ways that those below have little awareness of that. Our ruling classes are overly selfish, overly dumb and overly fearful. They don’t dare to enter into a system in which you pull the strings invisibly from behind.

 

This interview was translated from Thai to English by 'Project for a Social Democracy'