Although Thailand’s junta won the Aug. 7 referendum on a draft constitution with 62 percent of the vote, according to unofficial results, any idea that this was a democratic election that validates the army’s hold on power is specious.
It is highly unlikely that the result, being welcomed by the junta as a triumph, is going to be accepted in any respectable international capital. It has been widely condemned by human rights groups as rigged and by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. That is because it was an election that the military made sure it couldn’t lose.
According to the results, 15.56 million of 40 million-odd eligible voters ratified a constitution that in effect ensures that allies of the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra never return to power. It ensures that the generals who perpetrated the 2014 coup that drove a democratically elected government from power cannot be prosecuted and in effect legally authorizes the military to remove any elected government without having to mount a coup. A separate measure, approved by 58 percent of voters, allows the Senate to participate in the selection of the prime minister.
More than 40 percent of voters stayed away from the polls altogether despite herculean efforts on the part of the National Council for Peace and Order to entice them. In Isaan, the northeastern part of the country that is the home of rural voters allied with Thaksin, opponents of the draft document and an additional question allowing the NCPO to rig the composition of the lower house outnumbered supporters.
While there is no particular evidence of vote fraud, the junta prior to the election not only banned all criticism of the document but outlawed opinion polls and poll-watchers. It commissioned hundreds of thousands of government-backed canvassers to go to villages across the country to campaign for passage. Anyone mounting a “no” campaign was liable to a potential 10 years in prison.
According to a report by Thai Lawyers for Human Right, earlier this year high-profile figures in the northeast of the country were frequently detained in military barracks for several days and had to sign contracts agreeing to stop political activity upon release, including students, faculty members and other people who were summoned for attitude adjustment and asked to cease their political activism.
That included more than 60 who were members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – the Red Shirts or pro-democracy activists — as well as students from Mahasarakham and Khon Kaen Universities, academics, core village leaders, activists and NGO workers. They continued to be visited regularly visited by the military.
At least 120 people were arrested prior to the election. A move by the UDD to open “referendum monitoring centers” was met with the threat of arrest. Gatherings of more than five persons to discuss the issue were banned. Nonetheless, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the head of the Democrat Party, which opposed Thaksin and whose leaders engineered the political chaos that brought about the 2014 coup that ended democratic government, has publicly said he is opposed to the charter.
So did leading members of Pheu Thai, the surrogate party headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck that was ousted by the junta in May 2014 after months of turmoil carried out by royalists attempting to entice the military to take over, which they did with alacrity.
While the document also contains provisions theoretically ban graft and fraud to keep corrupt people out of politics, the fact is that the military is one of the most corrupt institutions in the country and it appears that military corruption has picked up considerable steam since the coup.
Prawit Wongsuwan, the 70-year-old deputy prime minister, for instance, was said to be behind inflating the costs of a park in Hua Hin, the site of the king’s summer palace, to pocket millions of dollars on the casting of bronze statues of the kings.
Many generals including Preecha Chan-ocha, the brother of Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader, have accumulated wealth into the millions, far beyond what they could possibly have earned from their own salaries. Preecha declared assets of at least Bt90 million (US$2.51 million) in his personal accounts when he was made a member of the National Security Council.
“I have to question whatever made the military think, with this kind of repression, that they could possibly believe the results would be accepted as legitimate,” said one Thai source. “They blocked all discussion of the draft, they intimidated opposition leaders, they flogged the country with propaganda, they didn’t allow opinion polls that might have shown the true feeling in the country. It shows how completely they are living in their own world.”
Under the terms of the constitution, a general election is to be held by the end of next year. All members of Pheu Thai of any stature are barred from running by provisions relating to charges against them following the 2014 coup. With a voting system that in effect bars strong political parties, if anything it would produce a weak coalition administration likely to be dominated by the military. With the Senate appointed by the military and other unelected bodies given a decisive hold on politics, it will bear little resemblance to a democratic system. The BBC calls it “guided democracy.” It may be guided, but there will be nothing democratic about it.