You have nothing to lose but your chains! Unless you vote to hang on to them of course, which is what the good citizens of Thailand seem to have done.
Let’s move backwards through the process to see where it all went wrong.
Voting and counting. Thailand excels at this. Every ballot is publicly displayed at the polling station and Uncle Tom Cobley and all can watch. Anyone wanting to rig an election in Thailand will stay well away from this part of the process. It’s too visible and would require a conspiracy of thousands. It’s so much more effective to stitch things up well in advance of voting day and then parade the polling process before the world’s media as superficial proof of Thai democratic values.
So the people who already know they’ve won can turn up to drop their ballots in the non-shatter-proof box in their puttering-round-the-house clothes. The choice of clothing may have been significant. As was the very different sartorial choice of starched be-medalled dress uniform in which a Certain Person announced which way he was going to vote. As if anyone needed telling.
The flurry of minor peccadilloes that the hastily arranged monitoring network detected was just that – minor and way, way too insignificant to have any serious effect. Look at what they did not find – ballot stuffing, multiple voters, large-scale impersonation, rigged counting systems.
Voter registration. Here is where the paranoia got ramped up. The voter lists went missing in a school in some back-of-beyond village in Kamphaeng Phet. Shock, horror, drama! Clearly those dastardly ‘Vote No’ campaigners were sabotaging the entire referendum process.
The Pavlovian response of the high heidyins is to jump to partisan conclusions about motive, which automatically solves the problem of whodunnit without any need for this messing around with factual evidence. The Provincial Chief of Police looked as stern as any bureaucrat wondering why it had to happen on his patch.
Then it turned out to be 8-year-olds attracted by the pink paper. (Why does it need to be pink? Isn’t that entrapment?) And no, despite their best efforts, the paranoids could not prove that the little girls had been bribed by Voldemort.
Add marauding macaques, drunks wanting paper for a roll-your-own, an impatient courting teenager bothered by mosquitoes and a pack of stray dogs and all you’ve proved is the deep-seated fear among those who Want Things To Be Done Properly of what their bosses may think.
So instead of a quiet warning to already cowed primary school girls, the local ECT official demands that 8-year-olds be formally charged, even though they are well below the age of legal responsibility. So they can now go through life with a police record against them and the vindictive ECT nasty will have brown-nosed his way to mote brownie points with his boss.
The campaign stage was far more seriously fraudulent. Because there wasn’t one.
The registered name of the instant coffee ‘Kano’ stopped being an abbreviation of ‘americano’ (which tastes nothing like it) and became a cryptic bilingual call to arms of a non-existent boycott campaign. And even if the rest of the country found the story hilarious, it took the Provincial Governor to sort out the non-existent threat from a couple of dozen hand-scrawled roadside flags.
Anyone arguing that the draft constitution was not fit for purpose (meaning something that can be abused, ignored and misinterpreted until the military rips it up in a few years) was in danger of some form of retaliation by the military. But the level of intimidation depended, as to be expected in this highly stratified society, on your socioeconomic clout. Noisy students were clamped in irons and marched barefoot into court. The leader of the Democrats just faced intra-party rumblings from his reactionary wing.
One of the most telling critiques again came from Nitirat. Commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, official Election Clown of Thailand, wondered aloud if their statement might be a violation of Article 61 of his beloved Referendum Act, but quickly backed off. In legal dogfight, nobody was going to wager folding money on him.
But any establishment clone with a sufficiently knowing smile could be propped up in front of a fawning TV interviewer to spout carefully cherry-picked nostrums on how wonderful the draft constitution was.
The biggest fraud however came at the point of the process that corresponds to candidate registration. This is how truly undemocratic electoral systems generally operate. You simply don’t allow any credible opposition candidates to stand, go through the motion and call it democracy. Or more likely a ‘people’s democracy’.
Voters in the referendum were asked to choose between a complex document that the vast majority had never seen, let alone understood, and … what? A promise from the gang who destroyed the last constitution to jimmy up something of their own devising, based on everything that Gen Prayut learned from parachute training.
The now-passed constitution is a deeply flawed document, but it does have some redeeming features. Some rights are enshrined in it, though fewer than in previous constitutions. It does sanction elections, albeit circumscribed with all manner of provisions to ensure the results are largely meaningless. And it will, eventually, see the end of the current power clique, at least in their current incarnation.
The unknown alternative could have been far, far worse.
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).