BANGKOK – For those who believe in democratic governments and self-rule, it would seem to be the political equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot.
How else would you explain the result of Sunday’s referendum in which Thais showed an acceptance of military rule by approving a new constitution that could pave the way for a quasi-democratic system of government controlled by the junta?
The answer is not too complicated. The Associated Press interviewed several people, including experts, and their opinions dovetailed into one theme: After years of political dysfunction, violence, corruption and deepening divisions in society, Thais wanted stability. Perhaps they did not think it through, but they saw the constitution – however flawed – as a way out of the quagmire.
There’s also the fact that the military government kept a tight lid on debate on the constitution, meaning many may not have realized it was flawed.
Here’s a collection of opinions from Thai and foreign experts, politicians and ordinary people who try to make sense of the seemingly incongruous outcome:
Puangthong R. Pawakpan, associate professor of political science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok:
“I believe a big part of the people who accepted the charter truly believe that it can solve corruption problems. Part of the people voted ‘yes’ because of their misunderstanding that once we have a constitution we will have an election and the military will be gone. … It also indicates the distrust for politicians is deep-rooted in Thai society. It also reflects a problematic perspective of the pro-military masses, who turn a blind eye to the corruption in bureaucracy and the armed forces.”
BACKGROUND: Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who took power in a 2014 coup, has promised elections in 2017. But the new constitution requires a five-year transition period to civilian rule. Also, it requires a military-appointed Senate to name a prime minister – in effect a leader controlled by the military. Other governing bodies, the courts and the bureaucracy will also remain under the military’s influence, according to the constitution. Corruption is endemic in Thai politics and society. The military, which has mounted 13 successful and 11 attempted coups since 1932, claims it wants to clean up corruption through the new constitution by curbing the powers of politicians.
Prajak Kongkirati, lecturer, political science, Thammasat University, Bangkok:
The referendum result “demonstrates that the voters simply buy the discourse of the junta that Thailand needs the military to stabilize the country during the ‘transition period.’ Voters simply believe that … the strong rule of military, or the new semi-authoritarian regime guided by that military, can prevent the recurrence of street politics and violent conflict that engulfed Thailand in the past several years.”
“Looking cursorily at the comments of and talking to people who voted ‘yes,’ it’s quite clear that they did not dissect the constitution in detail. They looked at the big picture and they accepted the newly designed system (in which) the military, courts and independent (bodies) can check the elected politicians. It is a vote out of anxiety about the future.”
BACKGROUND: Thai politics became divisive after former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra won elections for the first time in 2001 with the help of support from rural voters who traditionally had little say in politics. Unnerved by his popularity, Thailand’s traditional ruling class and royalists – known as the “yellow shirts” – took to the streets in 2005 to bring Thaksin down. He finally was ousted in a coup in 2006, prompting his supporters – known as “red shirts” – to come out into the streets. Over the next several years, Thailand was plagued by demonstrations and violence by Thaksin’s supporters and opponents. He has lived abroad since 2008.
Michael Montesano, research fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore:
“Relatively low turnout and the absurd measures that Thailand’s dictatorship took to prevent meaningful discussion of the draft constitution certainly contributed to the dictatorship’s surprisingly easy victory. For now, what merits emphasis is that the dictatorship has made an important stride forward in its effort to depoliticize what had become a highly politicized society, and it has done so with the help of the voters. This result seems to increase the likelihood that the steps that the dictatorship will take to institutionalize its favored political order will be met with continued apathy and disengagement on the part of many Thais.”
BACKGROUND: Only about 55 percent of the electorate of roughly 50 million voted in the referendum, reflecting indifference and apathy for a system that they knew would bring little change to their everyday lives. The low turnout also implies that only one-third of the electorate supported the new constitution. Also, ahead of the referendum, the junta banned all political rallies, debates and discussions on the constitution, preventing the “no” camp from explaining the pitfalls of the charter to the people. More than 100 people were jailed for violating the order.
Jatuporn Promphan, former government minister and supporter of Thaksin Shinawatra:
“We have to accept the reality. The government controlled its opponents … with arrests and stifling of opinions. The fact that we’ve come this far is our best effort despite everything that has happened. But we are good sports, and we hope that peace comes now. The problem is, how are we certain that the country will remain peaceful? We have seen that the military government can use Article 44 to solve its short-term problems, but how is that going to solve our long-term issues?”
BACKGROUND: Article 44 is an overarching law passed by the junta that gives Prime Minister Prayuth the power to pass any order in the name of public peace.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, junta leader:
“This exercise (referendum) is part and parcel of the government’s road map to have the participation of the people while we progress Thailand towards democratic political reforms, which are necessary for a bona fide democracy and thus for Thailand not to remain as a kleptocratic state. The government will pay heed to the will of the people today and will do everything possible to address their concerns while providing a sustainable solution to our country’s political problems.”
BACKGROUND: The junta and its supporters accuse former Prime Minister Thaksin, as well as subsequent governments formed by the various incarnations of his party, of stealing the nation’s wealth. It ousted the government of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014.
Yingluck Shinawatra, former prime minister ousted by Prayuth:
“I am sad, and regret that the country is stepping backward by accepting a constitution that may look democratic but really isn’t truly democratic. I’m not surprised with the results of the referendum because there was no opportunity to show our opinions or to criticize the content of the draft constitution to the full extent. It was one-sided and very different from any other referendum we’ve had, and from the rest of the world.”
Warabhorn Sampanna, English teacher, interviewed in Bangkok:
“I’m glad that the referendum passed because I believe that politics will change in a positive way, especially in regards to corruption. Politicians in the past have not taken care of Thailand as well as they should have, like the way that our current government is doing now. (Prayuth) really loves Thailand and he loves the Thai people. With him, there is no corruption because he really loves his country.”
Sansern Teekakul, occupation unknown, interviewed in Bangkok:
“It’s good. I feel good about it because I want there to be elections. Everyone came together to vote in the referendum. It’s like everyone came together because they wanted … democratic elections.”