As expected, Thailand’s military has drafted an interim constitution that gives it a vise-like hold on power and protects it from prosecution if and when another elected government might come to power. When that will be is anybody’s guess.
The interim constitution, formulated behind closed doors with no public input and released on July 22, is according to its preamble part of a three-stage process that began with the military takeover on May 22. The second stage, now underway, is to write the interim constitution, establish a national legislative assembly as an interim government, and create a reform council to promulgate a more formal constitution which is supposed to be completed by July 2015. The third stage, presumably to include elections at some point, will assure that “importance will be given to basic principles rather than to democracy only.”
That might be read as an indication that the governing junta will figure out some way to nullify the millions of votes in the north and east of Thailand that have consistently gone against the elites in Bangkok.
One critic likened the powers given to the military by the charter to those exercised by onetime Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat, whose regime after his second coup in 1958 was called the most repressive and authoritarian in modern Thai history, abrogating the constitution, dissolving parliament, and vesting all power in his own Revolutionary Party.
Thus the slow progress that Thailand has made towards democracy over the past decades has been reversed. The document tears away the façade of constitutional government and makes it clear that the real power has always been the military, going back to the 1932 putsch that ended 150 years of absolute monarchy under the Chakri dynasty and paved the way for the current constitutional one. It is a military that has suffered desultory expeditions into democracy with irritation and has staged 19 coups, 13 of them successful, when it decided the politicians were getting too rambunctious or crooked.
A major target, as it has been since a 2006 coup that drove him from power, is the billionaire tycoon turned politician Thaksin, who continued to run the country from abroad despite the fact that three successive surrogate governments were driven from power, the last one Pheu Thai, whose prime minister was Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s 47-year-old sister.
“This (constitution) demonstrates how totally out of touch with the Thai people the military is,” said Robert Amsterdam, counsel to the Free Thai movement, a de facto government in exile. “Frankly it demonstrates what has been said for some time, that this is an army of occupation and people should understand that. They have no legitimacy, reaching back into the dark corners of the past.”
The Free Thai movement is widely regarded as yet another Thaksin surrogate, although Amsterdam, with a London law firm, said he was not acting for Thaksin.
The current ruling body, the National Council for Peace and Order headed by Army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, is generally perceived as the best-prepared of any coup-makers in recent history. It has cast a wide loop, cracking down sharply on all dissent, warning the media against printing anything critical, rounding up politicians, academics and journalists and telling them not to make waves, going after Bangkok’s sex parlors, driving out overstaying expatriates, forcing the departure of Burmese and Cambodian workers and ordering everybody to be happy.
The interim constitution “is nothing short of a disaster for Thai democracy and human rights,” said a longtime civil society activist based in Bangkok. “When people look back at when the era of military control really became firmly entrenched, they will look at the adoption of this interim charter.”
The devil in the details is found in articles 44, 47 and 48, near the end of the document, which is signed by Prayuth.
Sec.44 gives the military the power to “order, suspend or act as deemed necessary” to reverse any act that might threaten peace and order. Sec. 47 says any actions taken by the National Council for Peace and Order “are completely legal and constitutional, particularly in ordering the “removal or appointment” of the previous government.
Finally, in Sec. 48, the interim document says that all acts of the National Council for Peace and Order relating to the coup on May 22 “whether done as principals, supporters, instigators or persons being commanded to do so and whether done on such date or prior to such date or after such date which if such acts may be unlawful, the actors shall be absolutely exempted from any wrongdoing, responsibility and liabilities.” That is standard boilerplate for all constitutions written by the military.
The document gives the military the power to select a 220-person legislature which in turn will pick a 35-member cabinet. It stipulates the formation of a 250-member reform committee to approve a permanent constitution written by 36-member drafting committee before elections can be held. No member of a political party over the past three years may be appointed to the drafting committee, and while that rules out all members of the Democrat Party, it more importantly rules out any members of the former Pheu Thai Party headed by Yingluck Shinawatra.
Since the military does the picking, while the document rules out participation by all sitting politicians, it hits hardest at Red Shirt followers from the north and northeast of the country. It is likely to be heavy on the Bangkok elites and businesspeople who want Thaksin gone for good.
“The national council has drafted a charter that guarantees no one can interfere or question the political system they are devising,” the longtime social activist said. “If you wanted to devise a roadmap to draft a new system for perpetual military control and interference in politics, you couldn’t do better than this. The blunt reality is that every major political mechanism ranging from the new legislative assembly to the so-called reform council and the constitutional drafting assembly are appointed by and answerable to the military.”
Nowhere, he said, is there any proviso to allow participation of ordinary Thai people in these decisions. “Even that Constitution that will arise from the drafting assembly will get rubber stamp approved by these military controlled mechanisms, not subjected to any sort of referendum of the people.”