Observers gaze with incredulity at the number of times Thailand has redrawn its Constitution. If the latest draft is passed, it would be 20. On the face of it, everything seems set for the ruling junta to extend its control over South-east Asia's No. 2 economy for the next five years. It will get to appoint almost all 250 members of the future Senate and even has a provision to allow the House of Representatives to pick a non-elected individual as prime minister. The draft charter will need to clear a referendum set for early August but if Thais had hopes of having a healthy debate on its provisions beforehand, these have been dashed. The military government is controlling discussion on the subject rather tightly.
The charter risks opening fresh fissures in a nation already riven by the power struggle between blocs representing the traditional power elite in Bangkok and the rural masses who are broadly in support of the Shinawatra siblings. Former premier Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup, has lived abroad since, fearing arrest if he goes home. His sister Yingluck was ousted by the military in 2014, but has remained at home. The junta must surely have noticed that not just the Shinawatra corner but even members of the Democrat Party, generally pro-establishment, have started making noises critical of General Prayut Chan-o-cha. This is presumably why, days after announcing the new charter, he has given the army sweeping policing powers to arrest and hold suspects.
The question is whether Thais believe the military is spurred by a patriotic instinct and is acting out of deep conviction when it says that democracy is about "giving supremacy to benefits for the people". After all, there is no denying that the Shinawatras were rather profligate with government funds as they set about expanding their political base. A steady hand is needed at the helm now, it can be argued, as there are serious concerns about King Bhumibol Adulyadej's state of health and the eventual succession.
Yet, how long can the military hold the fort in a modern state? Indonesia's armed forces moved to the barracks years ago, and a civilian government has just taken charge in next-door Myanmar. Military rule, at best, can only be a band-aid solution to crises. Gen Prayut's no-nonsense ways might ensure order is maintained but he's not bringing Thais closer together. The body politic, to be healthy, is better off with a return to democratic processes, even if it results in noisy and occasionally dysfunctional outcomes. The junta's actions would have carried more credibility had it also addressed the question of military reform and laid out a clear road map for the full restoration of democracy. Thailand has already paid heavily, in economic and diplomatic terms, for the junta's forceful takeover. It is time for the healing process to begin.