By Invitation

Thailand's democracy in military custody


After an authoritarian lull of nearly two years following its 13th military coup in May 2014, Thailand's political ground is moving. But it is going in the wrong direction yet again, heading towards confrontation and turmoil between the military authorities and civilian forces rather than adjustment and compromise between established and emerging sources of power.

At issue is the second military-inspired draft Constitution after two military coups over the past decade. As it is geared up for a plebiscite on Aug 7, the draft Constitution is unleashing pent-up tensions that will determine how Thailand's endgame continues to manifest.

At risk for the Thai military and its conservative supporters in upping the ante and playing all for keeps is the growing likelihood that they will end up losing much more than a self-enlightened and compromising approach.


As with the charter spawned by the previous putsch in September 2006, the main controversy over the current draft again centres on the role of elected representation.

Thailand's most popular and inclusive Constitution came into being in 1997 following a coup and disguised military rule in the early 1990s. That document crafted a new balance among institutions to make the executive branch more stable and effective, and the political system more transparent and accountable.

Its demise was attributable to the electoral ingenuity of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose party swept to power in 2001 and has triumphed in all Thai elections since.


The backlash from Thaksin's opponents rested on two principal grounds. In their view, despite his electoral supremacy, Thaksin's direct rule in 2001-06 and proxy administrations thereafter - including that of his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, at the helm in 2011-14 - relied on profligate policies that misled the majority of voters and led to corruption and abuse of power that benefited Thaksin's family clan and associates.

The initial response from the military and Thaksin's adversaries among the traditional elites was to roll back the liberal and progressive clauses in the 2007 Constitution by halving the elected Senate and turning them into appointees and shifting authority away from elected politicians and the executive to the judiciary and unelected agencies to constrain administrative excesses.

Yet these measures, coupled with the absence of an adept opposition party, were unable to dent Thaksin's electoral wherewithal.

The junior generals who implemented the 2006 coup are now the commanders of the 2014 takeover, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, in a chilling reversion to military dictatorships last seen in Thailand in the 1950s to 1970s during the Cold War. The junta, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), took over Cabinet positions that used to be delegated to technocrats, such as education, commerce and foreign affairs. The top brass have brooked no dissent, having temporarily detained several hundred dissidents and giving Gen Prayut absolute power in an interim charter.

The mutually reinforcing clutch of coup-induced institutions, such as a rubber-stamp legislature and a Constitution-drafting committee, has proposed a reactionary law of the land.


After the first version was aborted in September, the second draft Constitution drawn up by 21 NCPO-appointed writers has stipulated that a 250-member Senate is to be nominated by the junta itself. Six Senate seats are designated for top commanders of the security forces, namely army, navy, defence and police; the supreme commander and the defence ministry permanent secretary.

The Senate's term is to last five years, part of a 20-year junta- sponsored reform drive to reset Thailand's political development. In turn, the Upper Chamber is vested with unprecedented authority to supervise and scrutinise the post-election government.

It is like the military's own political party ensconced in the legislature without having to contest for people's support. Moreover, accountability- promoting agencies, such as the Constitutional Court and the judiciary, are given so much power that they will be able to keep elected governments on a leash. The Constitutional Court, in particularly, can intervene in "crisis" situations to decide Thailand's political directions.

The 500-member Lower House of elected representatives, on the other hand, is enfeebled by a mixed-member apportionment where popular parties will face a harder task forming a government.

With a single ballot picking from multiple candidates, the voting system is weighted against parties that win a large number of constituency MP seats as they would receive a correspondingly lower number of proportional seats. The charter drafters' intended result is a coalition government that favours smaller parties at the expense of larger rivals for fear of another juggernaut like Thaksin's vehicles.

Most controversial of all is that future Thai prime ministers will not need to be an elected representative. For decades that culminated in the 1997 Constitution, a major battle revolved around the prime minister's electoral legitimacy because past unelected leaders tended to be military dictators or their surrogates. The 1997 version for the first time required that a prime minister had to be an MP. Now the window is open for Gen Prayut or a fraternal cohort from the army or even a civilian proxy to take over after the polls, scheduled for mid-2017 at the earliest.

Many had thought at coup time that the military's seizure of power was perhaps necessary because of Thailand's delicate royal transition as ageing and ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej's remarkable reign wanes. The notion that the military was fulfilling its safeguarding and stewardship role has lost weight. Indeed, the generals now appear in it for themselves, intent on hunkering down and dominating political power indefinitely, well after the royal succession.

With civil society activists and politician types from Thaksin's Puea Thai party and a column of the anti-Thaksin Democrat Party arrayed against the draft Constitution, while the junta wields intimidation and coercion to the hilt to ram it through, the referendum will be contentious.

If it is rejected, Gen Prayut has indicated restarting from square one for the third time, potentially delaying the timetable for the election promised by the junta but which continues to look distant two years after the coup. If it squeaks through, the consequent election will risk being rigged for a four-star general to take the premiership in a military- conceived "custodial" democracy.

Either way, Thailand is heading inexorably towards tension and turmoil. The military will become increasingly heavy-handed as it loses control and dissent mounts, and pro-democracy forces are too scattered and divided on the Thaksin fault line to fill in the gap.

While a murky contest ensues, Thailand's way out of the morass is clear enough. It has to realign and forge a third-way alternative from the anti-Thaksin but pro-democracy forces of the Democrat Party, the anti-coup camp which has no illusion about Thaksin's vested interests, and the conservative elites, who must know that finding a party to win the people's vote is the best way to preserve as much of their power and prerogatives as they can.

•The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'Thailand's democracy in military custody'. Subscribe