Thailand’s junta, in a 14-page note verbale, or unsigned diplomatic transmission, has told the United Nations and other diplomatic missions and UN agencies it will proceed towards democracy at its own pace and in its own time, and that in effect the UN can mind its own business.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on May 22 said he was “seriously concerned” by the military takeover in Thailand and appealed for a “prompt return to constitutional, civilian, democratic rule and an all-inclusive dialogue that will pave the way for long-term peace and prosperity in Thailand.” Ban has been widely ignored, along with a long string of legations and governments, particularly the United States, Australia and the UK.
“Actually, it is interesting that they are even bothering with this report,” a western businessman told Asia Sentinel. “A simple ‘fuck off’ would have sufficed.”
Thai Army head Prayuth Chan-ocha, having failed to bring the warring Red and Yellow Shirts to agreement following declaration of martial law, declared a coup and took charge of the country on May 22. Since that time, the military, acting through the National Council for Peace and Order, has cracked down systematically on dissent, arresting hundreds of protesters, most of them supporters of the former elected Pheu Thai government. The press has been censored and intimidated. On Sunday, Thanapol Eawsakul, the editor and publisher of Fa Diew Kan (Same Sky) magazine, was rearrested allegedly for breaking the conditions of his release merely by posting a message on his Facebook page.
Following the lifting of the curfew in major tourist areas and then across the country on June 13, life has returned to a semblance of normal although the military has made temporary arrests on strange pretexts, provoked by individuals giving them the so-called three-finger salute popularized in the “Hunger Games” movies, for ostentatiously reading George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in public as a form of protest – and eating sandwiches, an act some students adopted at former demonstration sites as a stand-in for more traditional protests.
The timeline sent to the UN is taken from a series of Prayuth’s speeches to the nation, during which he asked the international community for time to put right what he described as an almost irreparably flawed democratic system.
According to the diplomatic transmission, a provisional constitution has been drafted and submitted to the national council. It is expected to be entered into force sometime this month. A National Legislative Assembly and cabinet are to be established in August and a “National Reform Council” supposedly composed of selected members from all sectors nationwide is expected to start performing its duties in October.
A new constitution is expected by around July of next year. That will present the National Reform Council with a significant problem. Since the army ended the absolute monarchy in 1932, the country has had 17 constitutions and charters of various kinds. all of them regarded as conduits for facilitating the power and advantage of the dominant political faction at the time – except for one drawn up in 1997 under then Premier Chuan Leekpai that was widely hailed as a landmark in reform.
The 1997 document was promptly repealed in the wake of the September 2006 coup that drove former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra from power and precipitated the continuing political chaos. Thaksin remains out of the country rather than face a two year jail sentence for having violated conflict of interest rules for having helped his wife buy land from a state agency at a reduced price.
“By 2015, the democratic process in Thailand would have been back on track and a democratically elected government in place to govern the country, as well as to complete the reform process towards a stronger and sustainable democracy for the benefits of all Thai people,” the diplomatic note says.
But most observers believe the constitution and the electoral machinery to be drawn up will be designed to make sure that the followers of Thaksin, who have won every election since 2001 by sheer weight of numbers from their constituencies in the rural north and northeast of the country – as well as from growing numbers in urban areas – will somehow be excluded from any chance to win the next election.
It is an article of faith that Thaksin will be kept away from the reins of power until after the ailing, 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies and his son takes over the throne. Thaksin is regarded as being close to the Crown Prince, Maha Vajiralongkorn, and there are longstanding fears that his relationship to the prospective monarch would give him access to the power of the throne.
Whether the military is handling the political situation fairly or not, it is certain that neither the military nor the Bangkok elites are going to allow that to happen. Thus the National Reform Council is faced with the quandary of how to put together any kind of democratic electoral system that would keep the Thaksin forces from smelling power.
“It’s pretty clear from this expansive agenda enunciated by the generals that the NCPO is planning to be around for quite awhile,” said a knowledgeable western observer in Bangkok who asked not to be identified for fear of arrest. “I expect that ‘reform’ is going to be developed behind firmly locked closed doors, and result in a take it or leave it proposition for Red-Shirt supporters – and they are not going to be happy with the the proposition they are handed. The question will be how far the Red Shirts are prepared to resist and how hard the NCPO and Thai military are prepared to push to perpetuate their powers through the so-called ‘reform’ proposals that come up.”
But even without addressing the problems of keeping Thaksin and his millions of Red Shirts away from the reins of power, the junta faces deeper ones.
“As the (diplomatic) report indicates, the problems have festered for years, and will take time to deal with,” another western political observer said in an email. “One year is not enough time. There is a real danger that after elections, everything will go back to where it was. Unless the new constitution can come up with institutional mechanisms to prevent that happening. The real problems lie deeply embedded in Thai society. One has been alluded to in the report—respect for the rule of law, which is sadly lacking at all levels in Thailand.”