Thailand’s new charter – A rock, a hard place and a third way

Thai baht banknotes and coins are pictured in Bangkok. Thailand’s economy is teetering.

Thailand’s new charter – A rock, a hard place and a third way

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These are nation-defining days for Thailand. Since seizing power in a May 2014 coup, the military junta headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has steadily stamped out freedoms and strangled democracy.

Such repression has invariably been enforced in the name of short-term “stability.” However, after many months of deliberation, the regime has published its draft charter, the country’s new constitution.

It gives Thai citizens a glimpse of what the long-term future holds if Prayuth has his way. And it isn’t pretty. The new charter threatens to emasculate the people, entrench the generals’ rule and silence opponents.

Worryingly, opposition to the new constitution is in danger of being blunted. Government stooges have warned that rejection of the new charter threatens to further delay long-awaited elections until as far away as 2017.

Debate over the constitution must not be reduced to a fabricated choice between a deeply flawed charter and a perpetually delayed electoral process.

In reality, the two are inseparable components of the very same body politic. Fair and free elections will only be possible if the constitution guarantees a political system which conforms to basic democratic standards.

The lure of an imminent popular vote must not be allowed to detract from the threat of constitutionally-sanctioned repression.

Such an election would be nothing more than a sham to legitimise an oppressive system. If Thailand is to ever enjoy the gift of democracy again, the battle must begin now.

And there is much ground to regain. Shortly after ousting Thailand’s democratically-elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the generals effectively outlawed meaningful opposition by banning political gatherings of more than five people.

Meanwhile, freedom of speech has been trampled under the guise of a rarely-used law which protects the country’s revered royal family from defamation. While there were just two such cases pre-coup, the number has since risen sharply to at least fifty prosecutions, including spurious accusations against Shinawatra’s brother Thaksin, also a former-prime minister and potential regime opponent.

And as if all of this wasn’t enough of a warning that a new constitution would make a mockery of democracy, Prayuth then activated Article 44 of the current charter, known as the ‘dictator’s law.’ It handed Prayuth unchecked power over most aspects of governance and rule of law in the faux interests of ‘security.’ In many ways, it served as a pre-cursor for the proposed abuses of the new constitution.

Commenting on the changes, Yingluck Shinawatra wrote that “The constitution must be democratic” …  “A democratic constitution must be connected to people, meaning it must allow the voice and decision of the majority of people to have an important role and not just let them choose some representatives pre-selected by certain groups of people. That is not truly democratic.”

And although the Constitutional Draft Committee has certainly taken ample time drafting the document since November 2014, this must not be mistaken for careful consideration.

Appointed by Bangkok’s generals, it is no wonder that the sum total of the committee’s work is to slavishly preserve the power of its military patrons. Starting at the very top, with provision for an entirely non-elected official to be handed the position of prime minister. And the cronyism doesn’t stop there.

Under the new charter, the Senate itself would become an entirely appointed body, thoroughly disconnected from the will of the people.

Moreover, under sections 229 and 231, these puppet Senators will be handed the power to appoint a Constitutional Court which can override legislation and the appointment of officials who are elected to office.

The net result is a system which at every turn sees real power rest with a self-appointed elite.

And as for those who do stand for public office, they too must fulfil criteria. Section 111 (15) states that elected officials must not be tainted by any of four offences.

Three relate to corruption and upholding the expectations of public office. The fourth, somewhat revealingly demands that elected representatives must not be “unusually rich.” In what kind of a regime does wealth disqualify a candidate from office?

The answer is one which is hell-bent on excluding its political opponents – In this case, the Shinawatras, whose financial clout is no secret.

Yingluck and Thaksin Shinawatra have triumphed in every election since 2001 and their Pneu Thai Party retains a significant groundswell of support. If any confirmation were required of the Bangkok junta’s anti-Shinawatra agenda, the Thai parliament will soon vote on whether to impeach more than 240 former-MPs aligned with the Shinawatras.

They are accused of “unconstitutional” behaviour. Their alleged ‘crime’? Supporting a constitutional amendment which would have seen the upper chamber of parliament fully elected. Only a thoroughly rotten political machinery sees lawmakers who are striving to widen public representation accused of unlawful behaviour by a military dictator.

And this is the despotic political culture which Prayuth’s new constitution will codify. Moreover, once it place, the charter would be almost impossible to alter, as it would require the approval of the military-appointed Senate and Constitutional Court.

In short, the draft constitution is a recipe for Thailand’s democratic suicide. Some opposition exists from members of the National Reform Council which is tasked with approving the new charter. However, outright rejection would be a brave call.

It would necessitate starting the lengthy drafting process over again and further delay an election which the junta originally promised for early 2016, but has already admitted will take place in August or September “at the earliest.”

A junta-appointed National Reform Council (NRC) is now due to vote on September 7 on whether to accept or reject the draft constitution, with a possible rejection meaning more work and a delay in an election the military has promised for late 2016.

Yet, doubters must not feel caught between the rock of formalizing an anti-democratic charter and a hard place of endorsing continued dictatorship. There is a third way.

The new constitution must be resolutely opposed. And the courageous, sporadic internal voices of opposition must receive wholehearted backing from international democratic powerhouses, namely the European Union (EU) and the United States.

They must send a clear message that a constitution which enshrines democracy, coupled with free elections including opposition candidates, are pre-requisites to taking advantage of the global marketplace. And there could not be a better time for such a determined stance.

Thailand’s economy is teetering. Expansion was at its slowest in 2014 for three years and exports are declining sharply. Meanwhile, this year’s severe drought threatens a 20 per cent drop in crucial rice output. The United States is Thailand’s second largest export market, the EU its third.

Washington and Brussels are perfectly placed to turn up the financial heat on Bangkok. Ultimately, it is an economic battle which they must wage – the heart and soul of Thai democracy and freedom is at stake.

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