Thai Junta Engineers a Thaksinless Constitution

Thailand’s junta and tame constitutional revision committee begin the year working on a revised constitution with one major goal in mind: prevent a resurgence of any popular government that could involve Thaksin Shinawatra or his proxies.

The 65-year-old former premier was ousted in 2006. Nonetheless, he has remained a major force in Thai politics, running successive surrogate governments from his perch in exile in Dubai before they were driven from power by putsch or court order. But his political acrobatics may be over at least temporarily despite the fact that he seemingly retains the affections of voters not connected to the Bangkok elites and the powers surrounding the royal court.

The latest Thaksin surrogate, headed by his sister Yingluck, was dumped by a May 22, 2014 military coup. She is now facing impeachment and has been commanded to appear before the national legislative assembly on Thursday for questioning over charges of corruption.

It appears likely that whatever parliament is created will also have a non-elected prime minister. Last week, Kamnoon Sidhisamarn, a member of the Constitutional Drafting Committee, expressed alarm to the Bangkok-based Nation newspaper, saying appointing a non-elected official flies in the face of historical precedent.

Beyond that, there is little clue of what the panel, appointed in late November to draft a new national charter, is up to although the document is expected to resemble the one put in place in 2007 by the military following the 2006 coup. Although Borwornsak Uwanno, the charter revision chairman, told reporters on Jan. 11 that foreign diplomats and members of the public could observe the committee’s deliberations, nobody is going to be allowed to record anything or report on what is being said during the meetings.

The committee must finish its work within four months from its appointment. The document is then to be forwarded to the National Reform Council – in effect the junta—headed by Prayuth Chan-ocha, who appointed himself prime minister.

But unlike 2007, when the military constitution contained enough loopholes to allow a democratically elected government to return to power, this document is expected to include a clause preventing any banned politicians from running in elections expected in 2016,. That includes Thaksin and dozens of others who have formed successive governments on his instructions. Many of his allies fled for Cambodia or other overseas points after the latest coup.

Whatever election does take place, the military is expected to engineer a political party that it can control. However, even among the Bangkok elites and their allies, it is questionable how tenable that would be. Sources in Bangkok say there is growing undercover derision over the military and its control, particularly Prayuth’ s weekly televised homilies on good manners and right conduct. Providing an electorate with a political choice that is no choice is likely to provoke the same kind of opposition authorities in Hong Kong have faced with Beijing’s announcement in September that it would in effect be in charge of approving anyone who ran for chief executive.

"My hope is that the new constitution will put a stop to past divisions and that the public will be as involved in its drafting as possible," Prayuth told reporters when the committee was appointed.

As has been clear in the eight months since Prayuth rang down the curtain on democracy, the army will remain clearly in charge, and even if it isn’t, its interim constitution, put in place on July 22, contains provisions absolving the military of any future punishment and pointedly says that “importance will be given to basic principles rather than to democracy only.” The permanent one is expected to contain the same kind of language.

Since the 1932 coup that ended the absolute monarchy, there have been alternating periods of democracy and military rule although behind the scenes the military has always been in charge. The cabinet appointed by Prayuth in September was deeply conservative and included 11 military figures taking almost all of the important jobs, including the ministries of justice, interior, labor, social development, commerce, natural resources and foreign affairs. The 200-member provisional National Legislative Assembly reserved 98 seats for the military -- 69 active officers, and 29 inactive or retired ones and seven police officials, giving the security forces an unassailable majority. The civilian minority includes a flock of senators who were in the military before turning to politics.

The months since the coup have been a period of uneasy calm following a draconian crackdown that included hauling in just about every influential figure in the country, including many journalists, and telling them not to make any bull moves. In recent days, a frustrated Prayuth has threatened further crackdowns on the press. Since the coup, the military has bragged that 1,200 websites have been shut down for lese majesté. Since the passage of the Computer Crimes Act in 2007, at least 110,000 websites have been blocked by authorities.

Behind that calm, however, there is considerable anxiety. One well-placed Thai banker told Asia Sentinel that there are undercurrents that he characterized as “ominous.” He declined, however, to describe them, only saying that he fears for his country.

How long this lockdown can last is anybody’s guess. The banker said there is considerable sentiment for democracy to be restored, but it will be a muzzled democracy, with law and order considerations paramount. As has been clear from the start, the process is ruled by the generals. Thai generals have never shown any particular originality beyond their ability to think up ways to raid the public purse, which they have done with regularity.