By accident or design, Thai junta extends its rule

Members of the National Reform Council pose for photographs after voting to reject a draft constitution – a decision that will put elections on hold until 2017. EPA/Narong Sangnak

The rejection by Thailand’s National Reform Council (NRC) of a draft constitution can be interpreted in two ways. It could be a rebuttal of the changes that the ruling junta has been pursuing, and maybe of the military junta itself, which is very unlikely. More likely, it is a ploy by the junta, to which the majority of the military-appointed NRC consented, to prolong its rule.

Appointed following the coup in May last year, the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) had been working on a new constitution since January. The NRC and CDC have been parts of the governance structure designed by the junta. Both will be disbanded.

A new committee will amend the draft constitution within the next 180 days and a new advisory steering body will be established. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the junta – will continue to rule Thailand under powers set out in the interim constitution it promulgated in 2014.

Did the rejection of the draft constitution on September 6 – by 135 to 105 votes with seven abstentions – come as a surprise? NRC members had reportedly been subject to intense lobbying by 21 of the 36 CDC members (those who were not also members of the NRC) to adopt the draft and to bullying by the junta. Commentators had not credited opposition to the draft with much strength.

On the other hand, it had begun to appear in the last week that a proportion of NRC members were worried about how to defend the draft constitution’s restrictions of democracy.

According to both the Bangkok Post and The Nation on September 7, in hindsight the outcome did not come as a surprise. Both newspapers took the editorial line that it had become clear in the past few days that there was strong pressure by NRC members most beholden to the military to reject the draft.

There was no convincing explanation of this. It beggars belief that the military had decided that the draft was too hostile to democratic principles. It is entirely conceivable, however, that the junta wanted an excuse to prolong its rule.

‘Guided democracy’ provisions set to return

Probably the most critical provision of the rejected draft, a fundamentally anti-democratic “crisis committee”, was only recently introduced by the junta. This committee would have been empowered for five years to override decisions of the elected parliament. Such a measure effectively provided for the “guidance of democracy” by a small appointed body led by the heads of the military.

Since the first draft of a new constitution was made public in April, there has been consistent criticism of provisions for an unelected prime minister, a Senate with 123 selected senators but only 77 elected and electoral mechanisms that would favour small parties without providing procedures to resolve conflicts within a coalition government.

The complaint that unspecified persons would select senators from nominees put forward by particular groups in civil society became louder when it was revealed that the prime minister and military government would make the selections and that some members of the government would be selected.

Ousted prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother and former PM Thaksin, continue to defy the junta. EPA/Narong Sangnak

The constitutional provision for a “crisis committee” had been strongly opposed by the Pheu Thai and Democrat parties, by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and by the sibling former prime ministers, Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. The common view was that such a provision would undermine restoration of democracy.

An unsurprising outlier was Suthep Thaugsuban, the energetic leader of the now defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). Since the coup, Suthep has been a monk. However, he recently returned to politics as chairman of the newly launched Muan Maha Prachachon, or “Great Mass of the People” Foundation.

The foundation has been pushing for the completion of reforms proposed by the military government before elections are held (virtually the old PDRC position). Recently, however, Suthep endorsed the draft constitution – the junta allowed him to hold a press conference while preventing other groups such as UDD from doing so.

The unelected “crisis committee”, or the National Committee on Reform and Reconciliation Strategy, would have consisted of a chair and two groups of 11 persons.

The first group would have included the prime minister, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the president of the Senate, the heads of the army, navy and air force, chief of police, chief of defence forces and three others – a former prime minister, a former parliamentary speaker or Senate president and a former head of the Supreme Court, each chosen by his or her peers. The second group would have consisted of “specialists from various fields” selected by parliament.

The committee could have overridden the government and/or parliament if two-thirds of its members decided to do so. As Atiya Achakulwisut put it:

The committee will then have power over the legislative and executive branches. All its decisions will be considered lawful and final.

The committee would have retained its power of intervention for five years after the promulgation of the new constitution. It could have remained in existence as an “advisory” body for another five years.

The “crisis committee” and much else proposed in the CDC draft may well be resurrected. The next draft of a new constitution will be put to an advisory National Reform Steering Assembly (NRSA) of 200 members nominated exclusively by the junta, including its pick of members from the defunct NRC.

Another year, at least, of military rule

Despite democracy activists campaigning against the junta’s proposals, a majority of Thais seem to accept military rule. EPA/Diego Azubel

The junta will now remain in power for another year at least – some say until April 2017 – and recent appointments have consolidated its hold over the cabinet and military.

With almost no discussion, the tame legislature has awarded the cabinet a budget for 2016. Much of the budgeted expenditure has not been committed to specific items and may be disbursed as the government sees fit.

In so far as public attitudes can be gauged in opinion polls, it appears more people than not are satisfied with the performance of junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha and his government. Asked whether they would approve a further two years for the military government until a new constitution could be promulgated and subsequent elections held, a clear majority agreed.

Either the people in general accept that they have no place in political reform (which will have to be left to the military), or that constitutional reform will mean little (“constitutions come and constitutions go”), or that elections will only resurrect fruitless conflict among self-interested, essentially indistinguishable, “professional” politicians.

In comparison with 2014, this year has definitely been quieter (or was until the bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok). The junta has stripped Thaksin of his police rank and continues to pursue charges against Yingluck in regard to the failure of the rice pledging scheme.