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“Re-engineering” Thailand will go against the grain

It was the most robust public debate in Thailand since the army seized power in a coup d’etat 10 months ago on May 22, 2014.

And it was clear to the packed house at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) last Wednesday (March 11) that the country is heading into completely uncharted waters strewn with hidden rocks.

The reform vision is idealistic, almost utopian.

Mr Alongkorn Polabutr, a senior member of the military regime’s handpicked National Reform Commission, painted a gloomy picture of a country dogged by political instability, and with a limping economy fast becoming the “sick man of Asia’’. Politicians had failed, he insisted.

Under the new constitution, elections – now delayed till February 2016 - would put more power in the hands of the people than ever before. New citizens’ organisations or councils would be set up across the country. There would also be a primary system in which people, not political parties, would decide who their candidates would be for seats in parliament in Bangkok – but only in the lower house which would be a “house of politicians.’’

The appointed Senate, or upper house, would be like a “house of citizens’’ with members from groups from various walks of life.

“It is a new paradigm,’’ Mr Alongkorn said. Citing Thailand’s frequent coups d’etat and widespread corruption, he said “Thailand is being re-engineered.’’

He laid the blame squarely on politicians. “We cannot continue on the same path,’’ he said. “It is the bad experience of democracy and the bad ways of Thai politicians which have resulted in this. We want political parties to be free from political investors. We want political parties to be free from influential people.’’

“The constitution is being designed to empower citizens, because people do not believe in politicians any more.’’

But the three others at the table – all former Cabinet ministers and more importantly, from both sides of the divide - did not agree with his arguments.

Former Cabinet ministers Kasit Piromya of the Democrat Party, and Chaturon Chaisang and Pongthep Thepkanjana of the Puea Thai which was kicked out of office by the army last year, were not just skeptical, but deeply pessimistic that a system which was being evolved with little or no consultation with the public, and may not even be put to a referendum, would satisfy the Thai people. 

The citizens’ organisations would be window dressing, Mr Chaturon contended. Citing a provision in the draft constitution allowing a so-called “neutral” prime minister to be appointed in times of crisis, he scoffed, saying it was “easy to create a crisis’’ and the people essentially would have no say in who was to be their prime minister.

The new system would be “contrary to the direction of political development in Thailand’’ and a recipe for more conflict, he said. With major decisions taken by a non-elected minority, the system would exclude the majority of the people.

Mr Pongthep, a lawyer and former judge, and like Mr Chaturon, a former deputy prime minister, said the draft constitution showed no trust in people or respect for them.

Mr Kasit, a former Ambassador to Japan, Germany and Washington, who joined protests against the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his direct or proxy governments in 2006, 2008 and 2014, is known for his acerbic tongue, and it was left to him to make the most categorical statement, which coming from a senior member of the Democrat Party, was the most telling.

An appointed Senate was “unacceptable”, he told the audience of foreign and local media, diplomats, business people and academics, as well as a sofa full of police officers assigned by the regime to monitor the event.

“You have to trust in the good sense of the people,’’ he said. “Otherwise, what have we been on the streets fighting for?'' he said.

“I am pessimistic and sad," he concluded. “The minority acting on behalf of the masses is totalitarian and fascist.’’

The event was not the only sign that opposition to the new constitution cuts across the political divide. Voices from both sides of the divide have been speaking out more in recent weeks to warn against the “top-down’’ approach of the regime. But it was the first time the stakeholders said it openly to an audience, at an essentially public venue, shared with a prominent member of the establishment itself – Mr Alongkorn.

The military regime, in its zeal to engineer a fool proof political system that hamstrings political parties to the advantage of the old Bangkok-based elites, ironically may do more to achieve the elusive “reconciliation’’ that has been a little understood buzzword for several years now in Thailand. 

It is on the way to uniting warring political factions against a common adversary - the military itself. 

nirmal@sph.com.sg