Thailand’s Military-Backed Constitution: Political Stability or Dictatorship?
By Emily Lim
On August 7, 2016, Thai voters voted “yes” to a military-backed constitution in a national referendum. The new constitution, backed by 61% of voters, gives an unelected, military-controlled Senate the power to choose an unelected prime minister and to supervise future governments.
The results of the referendum reveal much about the military’s growing interference in Thailand’s politics. The new constitution not only binds future governments to the military’s 20-year reform plan, but also allows the head of the military, General Prayuth, to more easily retain his position as prime minister since it allows for a non-MP to hold this post.
The passing of the new constitution signals a go-ahead for the creation of the Constitutional Drafting Committee, which is responsible for drafting 10 new Organic Laws on the political process. There is speculation that these new laws could be deliberately implemented in a manner detrimental towards the democratic process: the new laws could require parties to dissolve and reform, leading to the formation of smaller parties and fragmentation; the implementation of proportional representation could mean that parties could find it more difficult to form majorities, resulting in weaker coalitions.
To any international observer, that any nation would willingly vote to have its right to elect its leaders and representatives taken over by the military seems unbelievable. In order to understand the referendum result, one must examine the hand that the Thai junta had.
Firstly, the military used repression tactics to sway the vote in their favor. Prior to the referendum, all campaigning was banned; public debate was banned; and activists who tried to criticize the proposed constitution were detained and charged. As a result, voters had limited access to information about the contents of the proposed constitution. What’s more, the 61% figure of those who voted in favor can be deceiving - the low voter turnout of 54% implies that the majority vote was unrepresentative of the will of the people.
In understanding the ‘yes’ vote, one must also take into account the attractive option that the military offers Thai voters. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the interim military-backed government, which has governed the country since the 2014 military coup, presented the constitution as one which would target political corruption and reform the country, effectively putting an end to the “endless crisis” that has gripped Thailand in its long history of military interventions.
Indeed, Thailand has had a tumultuous recent history. Since 1932, when Thailand’s absolute monarchy ended, there have been 19 different constitutions. In 2006, Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup; his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was first ousted by a 2014 court ruling, after which the military came to power.
The instability has created a geographic and political rift across Thailand. The “red shirt” camp, mostly made up of the rural and working classes in the north and northeast, support the Shinawatras. The “yellow shirt” camp, mostly made up of the urban middle class, are stringently anti-Shinawatra. This divide was made apparent when in the constitutional referendum, the majority of voters who voted against the proposal were from the rural northeast.
Thailand now faces an uncertain future. Yingluck Shinawatra has been banned from office for five years by the military-appointed assembly. According to analysts, as a result of the referendum, her party – the Phuea Thai – will lose 10-20% of votes. Even if Phuea Thai wins a plurality of votes, the military now has the power to forge an organization of parties to counter their influence – as they did in 2008.
Worse yet, the failing health of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has reigned for over 70 years and who has served as “the essential source of authority for all power-brokers,” is another source of political instability as political players maneuver for influence.
It seems that the result of the constitutional referendum is just one among the many steps that Thailand is taking towards the consolidation of a military-controlled state.