from Asia Unbound

Thailand’s August 7 Referendum: Some Background

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August 3, 2016

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On August 7, Thailand will hold an up or down national referendum on a proposed new constitution. Drafting new charters are hardly unusual in the kingdom, which has had twenty constitutions since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. (One famous Thai joke told to me by many friends involves a Thai student visiting a library to read a copy of the current constitution, only to be told to check in the periodicals section.) This charter has been drafted by a group of pro-military/royalist former officials, and stage managed by the junta, which took power in May 2014 after months of destabilizing street protests against the elected Yingluck Shinawatra government.

To make it as likely as possible that the charter passes, the junta has essentially banned all critical public discussion of the proposed constitution. In one notable example, the military arrested student activists last month just for handing out leaflets that criticized the draft charter. As Shawn Crispin writes in the Diplomat, the junta has implemented “a draconian Referendum Act that carries potential 10-year prison penalties for misrepresenting the draft constitution, criticizing its content, or disrupting the vote.” The junta also has dispatched squads of army cadets across the country to encourage Thais to vote yes on the constitution.

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The charter is designed, in many ways, to undermine Thailand’s democratic institutions, preserve the power of the armed forces and other unelected institutions, and ensure that either the military or pro-military parties are in power whenever Thailand goes through a royal succession. The military, and pro-military middle and upper classes in Bangkok, may fear that unless they weaken democratic institutions, including political parties, whenever another election is held it will be won by the populist Puea Thai party, a party linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. So, the proposed charter would make it harder for any one party to gain a working majority in the lower house of parliament. The charter also would create a fully unelected upper house of parliament and invest it with sizable powers. It also would create the possibility that parliament could select an unelected person as prime minister—possibly someone from the military establishment.

Fears about royal succession are well-founded. The current king, Bhumibhol Adulyadej, is eighty-eight, rarely appears in public, suffers a range of ailments, has lived on and off for years in a hospital wing, and yet is revered by most Thais. Bhumibhol is revered in part because he has played a stabilizing role in Thai society, but also because a massive personality cult has been created around him, built by the palace and the military, over six decades of his rule.

Thailand now exists in a state of fear, with many royalists worried that the period after Bhumibhol’s passing will usher in civil conflict, since Thais will reject the next king, or the next king will prove so unstable that he will destabilize the entire country. The current crown prince, Bhumibhol’s heir, is known for his unpredictable behavior, is rumored to be widely disliked by business and military elites, and has rarely shown wise political judgment. Indeed, he enjoys little public trust. Yet although the crown prince would technically be a constitutional monarch when he becomes king, he will inherit a wide range of powers unparalleled anywhere except the absolute monarchies of the Middle East—informal powers, but sizable powers nonetheless over the security establishment, the rich Crown Property Bureau, and the business and political elite.

Unlike Thai juntas going back to the 1960s, the current junta has overseen a very harsh government. In 2006–7, during the last coup era—and in most coup governments dating back to the late 1960s—military regimes allowed a certain degree of free expression, as long as people did not hold massive public protests against a coup government. These past juntas also usually appointed technocrats to head up most major ministries—under military rule or de facto military rule Thailand posted some of the highest growth rates in the world between the 1960s and early 1990s—and they eventually handed power back to the public via elections. In Thailand’s 2006–7 coup, that junta followed the same script that had been used in coup after coup dating back to the 1960s. (Thailand has had more coups or attempted coups in its modern history than any other nation in East Asia.) After a year in power, the 2006 junta, which had ousted Thaksin, oversaw relatively free elections, which were won by a pro-Thaksin party, although Thaksin himself was not at the helm. The junta stood down.

The current junta is doing everything it can to avoid a scenario where a pro-Thaksin party comes to power again. Besides trying to stack the charter to weaken parties and institutions, the junta has hinted that, if the voters reject the charter, the coup government will stay in power—possibly for an indefinite amount of time. In addition, it has over the past two years launched an aggressive crackdown on all types of dissent in Thailand. The junta has sent hundreds of civil society activists, journalists, opposition politicians, and other potential critics to re-education sessions, which are often held at army camps, and subjected them to worse torture, according to Human Rights Watch and other organizations. It has overseen a growing number of questionable lèse-majesté cases, which are tried in military courts. It has forced many former opposition politicians to sign coerced agreements vowing not to be involved in politics again.

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However, because the junta has made it so hard to express dissent in Thailand, it has also created a situation in which voting no on the charter could be, for many Thais, the only way they have to show displeasure at the coup government. Though there may be some fraud, the actual voting will likely be relatively free and fair; there is little evidence to suggest that the coup government plans to blatantly rig the polls on August 7. So, it is possible that Thais will reject the draft charter as a rebuke to the military government, and a way to resist giving the army even more, and more entrenched, powers. In the next post, I will discuss what might happen if Thais reject the charter—and what might happen if it passes. I am not optimistic about Thailand’s future under either scenario.

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