Thailand 'has to find new model of stability'

Abhisit: Draft Constitution seems to emulate past ideals but weaken democratic process

Democrat Party Leader Abhisit Vejjajiva

As Thailand prepares for its 20th Constitution in the 83 years since it became a constitutional monarchy, the head of its oldest political party says that the military regime is aspiring to an ideal of stability that is no longer tenable.

"There is a generation of people who are active in the current regime that still look back to the era of, say, General Prem Tinsulanonda, and think we enjoyed stability then, and there was continuity of policy and so on," Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva told The Straits Times.

Gen Prem , currently president of the King's Privy Council, was once army chief and served as appointed prime minister through much of the 1980s. He is seen as an elder statesman and a mentor to generations of army officers.

"But the world has moved on, the country has moved on, and it is unrealistic that anyone can design a system to take us back to where we were," said the Eton and Oxford-educated Mr Abhisit, 51, who was prime minister from 2008 to 2011.

Mr Abhisit was critical of the regime's economic management, saying it had failed to stimulate the economy. But he gave a qualified benefit of the doubt to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who as army chief seized power on May 22 last year, saying he did not appear to want to stay on in power.

"I think he knows pressure will increase; any kind of extension (of army rule) would have to have very good justification," Mr Abhisit said in an interview at the Democrat Party headquarters. "If people say, 'let's see whether we can extend Prayut's term', without a clear rationale, I don't think it's going to go smoothly, and I think Prayut is aware of that."

But he was not optimistic about the new Constitution, which has been drafted by a committee handpicked by the military. He conceded that nobody had seen the latest draft - due to be voted on by the military regime's National Reform Council early next month, and if approved, then put to a nationwide referendum in January.

But going by an earlier draft, he was worried that political parties would be weakened, which would be misguided, he said.

Thailand's problem was not strong or weak governments or political parties fighting one another, but the abuse of power, Mr Abhisit said. And rather than finding ways to curb abuse of power by elected governments, the earlier draft showed the Constitutional Drafting Committee"actually weakening the democratic process".

"There's no doubt that politicians have to carry part of the blame for why the country is where it is now," Mr Abhisit said. "But that's not to say that all politicians (are)... necessarily a part of the problem. The people will be making a choice; they can't force a choice on them.

"For South-east Asia to break out of the middle income trap, and raise the stage of its own development, we should get away from authoritarianism. We (Thailand) are stuck in it because, unfortunately, the politicians, the military, all the actors, are not trying hard enough to move (us) away from authoritarianism."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline Thailand 'has to find new model of stability'. Subscribe