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Thai military's grand design in politics

Thailand is abuzz over an impending August referendum on a new Constitution proposed by the military-led regime. Whatever its outcome, the military's grand design is clear: Weaken political parties in order to have easily disposable coalition governments.

BANGKOK • The shadow of the army in Myanmar is a long one, but, over the past five years, it has shrunk. Next door in Thailand, though, the shadow of the Royal Thai Army is lengthening.

Public attention is veering to a referendum on a new proposed Constitution, tentatively set for Aug 7.  

It would be Thailand's 20th Constitution in 84 years since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, during which time the country has also seen 12 successful and seven attempted coups d'etat by the armed forces.

The referendum raises the stakes in the near term: It will be interpreted as a poll not just on the Constitution but also on the military government, and perhaps on democracy itself, depending on whose point of view you believe in a country bitterly polarised but where the military swiftly squashes any sign of dissent.

While the referendum and election are certainly tripwires on the road to Thailand's return to a version of democracy, in the larger scheme they will be extended political theatre.

It is obvious that the military's grand design is to weaken political parties in order to have easily disposable coalition governments. The military will remain the real power whatever the outcome of the referendum and the election.

The draft Constitution envisages a five-year "transitional" period beginning with an election - now expected in mid-2017. It vests so much power and authority in a 250-member military-controlled Senate that the upper chamber will be poised to lord it over the next elected government if it is passed in the referendum, wrote Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Security and International Studies, in the Bangkok Post last Friday.

Independent agencies, like the Constitutional Court, would have the power to keep any elected government weak and fractious, and allow an unelected military figure or proxy to become prime minister, he wrote. "The Thai state is going through a spectacularly chilling militarisation," he added. "The draft Charter depicts the Thai military's role as closer to the long and repressive military-authoritarian period during 1947-1973." 

Thailand's Constitution drafting committee presenting a draft Charter to National Legislative Assembly members in Parliament last Wednesday.
Thailand's Constitution drafting committee presenting a draft Charter to National Legislative Assembly members in Parliament last Wednesday. PHOTO: REUTERS

There will be debates on television in the run-up to the referendum. A grassroots information campaign will be carried out, mostly by the army.

But there is unlikely to be overly vigorous debate.

Under the rules, "people who propagate information deemed distorted, violent, aggressive, inciting or threatening so that voters do not vote or vote in a particular way" could face up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to 200,000 baht (S$7,700).

The Puea Thai party, whose government was kicked out by the army in 2014, would like the Constitution to fail the referendum, tarnishing the regime. If it does, the immediate outcome is uncertain. The regime has mentioned adapting the current or a past Constitution. If it passes, the regime will advance to an election armed with a Charter that gives it the whip hand.

Either way, the military government has dug in. Only a handful of students, a few politicians and a few ordinary individuals have shown dissent. An organisation abroad started by politicians who fled after the 2014 coup has not found traction.

Within the grand design, the referendum is still a tripwire; each side will try and spin the result to its advantage. Both the referendum and the election, even if largely political theatre, contain elements of risk for the regime.

"The Constitution reflects the kind of political system they (the regime) imagine they want to establish permanently. They want to permanently weaken political parties," Professor Thongchai Winichakul, who teaches South-east Asian history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said over the phone. "On the other hand they have a short-term target as well; they want everything under their control quickly."

The Puea Thai party has already formally - and predictably - objected to the draft that will be put to the referendum.

Thailand's second-largest party, the Democrat Party, which is more aligned with the conservative establishment - its deputy leader peeled off from the party and led protests in Bangkok in 2014, paving the way for the army's intervention - has been critical as well. Last Saturday, party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva said: "The 250 appointed senators should not have the right to overrule the people's will."

The day before, former premier Yingluck Shinawatra - sister of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra who continues to be loathed by the elites for his profligate populism in a winner-takes-all political culture - said special powers for the Constitutional Court would go against "international democratic norms".

But international democratic norms are not the objective.

The military has constantly stressed that Thailand has its own circumstances. Even Mr Anand Panyarachun, a former appointed premier and, at 83, an elder statesman - and no particular fan of the junta - when asked about democracy in Thailand at a recent Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand event, recalled how long other countries had taken to transition, saying: "I'm not apologetic about the 'slow pace' of the development of democracy."

In his speech, Mr Anand admitted: "We have a tendency to focus on democracy in form rather than in substance. We follow procedures and go through the motions of elections. We have never had a true democratic transition - a genuine change in our political system. Change has always been superficial; old wine in a new bottle - or you could even say old wine in an old bottle but with a new cork."

Thailand is going through an anxious time. A transition looms in the monarchy, with 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej frail and in hospital. Transition in the current Thai context means the "transition between reigns", Professor Thongchai said.

The military intends to stay in pole position, one way or another, analysts say. In the military's mind, politicians can't be trusted, and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha makes no bones about it. Last Friday, he called ousted premier Thaksin - who lives in self-imposed exile dodging a two-year corruption-related jail term at home - an "outlaw and a liar".

Years ago, in 2003, when I moved to Bangkok at a time when then Prime Minister Thaksin was at the height of his popularity, and beginning to boast of staying in power for 20 years, a political analyst wagged his finger at me and said with a chuckle: "Thai Politics 101: Nobody likes a powerful prime minister."

Events since have proved him right. The regime is marching Thailand back to its old norm of weak civilian governments under the shadow of the military. The question is whether such a system can be sustained in a new, digitally connected and globalised millennium, and in a country where history has shown that rival factions can emerge even within the military itself.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'Thai military's grand design in politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe