Thailand’s undemocratic Constitution: 3 takeaways

Thailand’s undemocratic Constitution: 3 takeaways

Thailand’s latest draft constitution is a push by the Junta to cement its hold on power, effectively shattering the country’s democracy. While the Junta ostensibly seeks to preserve stability and encourage foreign investment, the military’s actions will ensure that the opposite happens.

The Thai military Junta is attempting to put the final nail in the coffin of Thailand’s democracy. A closer analysis of the latest draft constitution, released on January 29th, reveals a range of measures which will ensure that the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the official name of the Junta led by former general and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, will retain all power.

While Thailand used to be considered a beacon of democracy in South East Asia, the Junta has stepped up its use of repressive measures, detaining and harassing thousands of citizens who challenged the regime since it took power in a bloodless coup almost two years ago.

If the draft is accepted, it will be Thailand’s 20th constitution since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932. And while it wouldn’t be the most repressive one, it risks taking Thailand back to the 1960s, when military rule was the norm.

1. The NCPO will be granted absolute power

According to the draft, absolute power will remain with the NCPO even after the long-delayed democratic elections.

The Junta would retain power to prevent opposition parties from campaigning or, even more worryingly, could prevent a winning political party from appointing a government. The NCPO will also have the power to suspend or abolish the Constitution and cancel elections, effectively making them the ultimate arbiter of Thailand’s political life.

Moreover, the NCPO will have full control of the unelected National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA). The NRSA, chaired by members of the military and other trusted figures, will be tasked with the creation and implementation of policies which the Junta believe are necessary to save Thailand from democracy – a concept rooted in contradiction.

While theoretically, the government wouldn’t have to implement all of the NRSA’s ideas, in practice it would be bound to cooperate. Any policy conflict between the Cabinet and the NRSA would be brought to the unelected Constitutional Court – the same Court which paved the way for the 2006 and 2014 coups.

2. The House of Senators will be appointed by the Junta

Unlike its current embodiment, the House of Senators will be appointed with members of the NCPO and other trusted advisors. The Senators will be given increased powers to directly and indirectly intervene in the legislative, administrative and judiciary arms of the state by empowering independent government organisations with nominated people of their choosing.

This new Senate format is the Junta’s insurance policy against what it perceives as the potential for future governments to “mess[] up with the Constitution”. Ironically, the Junta believes that the 2006 coup was a failure because it was unsuccessful in curbing corruption and power abuses by politicians when, in reality, elites could not fathom that a Thaksin-related party won an election – again. Essentially, the Senate’s job would be to ensure that future governments ‘toe the line’, according to the NCPO’s doctrine.

3. Military personnel’s immunity will be broadened

Military personnel will be granted immunity at all levels when acting under orders. This immunity will also be extended until after the formation of a new Cabinet, allowing the NCPO to continue infringing human rights with impunity.

More worryingly, military immunity effectively gives soldiers a ‘license to kill’ and raises the stakes in any potential street protest or confrontation against the military.

The future?

With the latest Constitutional draft, the Junta is using a multi-pronged approach to consolidate power even further and enshrine their status as the guardians of the Monarchy and of Thai democracy – a concept that has been twisted into ‘paternal authoritarianism’. The proposed changes ensure that any elected government will remain weak and will be constrained to follow the NCPO’s orders.

At the heart of the debate is the generational rift between Thai elites and the farmers in the countryside. Thaksin, who was thrown out of power in 2006 by a bloodless coup, was the first prime-minister to pay substantial attention to farmers and therefore gained a majority of his support from the poorer regions of the country.

Proposed legislation and investigations on trumped-up corruption charges may now effectively ban Thaksin and anyone allied to him from returning to politics, essentially giving Thailand back to the elites and side-lining the farmers.

Lastly, Thailand is suffering economically from the uncertain political situation surrounding the Junta. Foreign companies care less about who is in power, as long as there is stability. The Junta’s relentless pushing back of elections has meant that foreign investors have either put their plans on hold, or simply moved to neighbouring countries with more stable business environments. This draft Constitution does little to help the matter while ensuring the Junta stays in power until 2017 or 2018.

Between the 88-year old King Bhumibol’s poor health, the NCPO’s abuses, the crumbling economy and the worst drought in 10 years, Thailand is at a crossroads and faces enormous risks. The question for ordinary Thais now is whether this Constitution is better than no Constitution. While the NCPO believes that it alone can guide Thailand on the path to political righteousness, it is worth a reminder that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Nicolas Jenny

Nicolas Jenny specialises in European and Asian political risk analysis. He has lived extensively throughout the region and speaks English, French and Mandarin. He holds a double master's from Sciences Po Paris and Fudan University and a BSc in politics from the University of Bristol.