The real meaning of Thailand’s constitutional referendum

The real meaning of Thailand’s constitutional referendum

If history is a guide, Thailand’s latest constitution will be shortlived

Many observers of Thailand’s ongoing debilitating political crisis have been scratching their heads trying to understand how Thai voters approved a draft constitution in the referendum on 7 August 2016 which is so blatantly designed to entrench military rule.

The result of the referendum appeared to show an easy win to the ‘Yes’ camp. Sixty-one per cent of voters approved the draft constitution while 39 per cent voted ‘No’. Fifty-eight per cent also approved a second question, inserted by the regime at the last minute, on whether a non-elected prime minister could be appointed by a joint sitting of the Senate and House of Representatives.

The real aim of the draft constitution is to weaken the authority of any future elected government and to constitutionally protect the political influence of the military and its conservative backers. Its drafter, 78-year-old conservative lawyer Meechai Ruchupan, has close Palace and military connections. In the 1980s he headed the Prime Minister’s Office under the then prime minister, General Prem Tinsulanonda, who, now aged 96, is chairman of the King’s Privy Council. The intention of this draft is to return Thailand to that era in which elections and political parties were held tightly in check by the military and its backers in the Palace.

Yet the result of the referendum is less conclusive than it would appear.

The turnout was 59 per cent, less than the 80 per cent the military had hoped for, and below the average turnout for the last six general elections, which pro-Thaksin political parties have consistently won. But it was slightly higher than the turnout for the 2007 referendum (58 per cent). And the ‘Yes’ vote increased by by 2 per cent, while the ‘No’ vote decreased by almost 4 per cent.

Campaign ban

While no evidence of electoral fraud has been uncovered, this was in no sense a free and fair referendum. The military junta banned any campaigning. The ‘Vote No’ camp never had a chance to put their case to the people. Scores of people who defied the ban were arrested, charged, and some imprisoned. Because of the ban many voters did not know what was actually in the constitution. Meanwhile the regime made it clear through its control of the mass media and its influence over the bureaucracy that it expected the constitution to be passed.

Under such favourable circumstances the 36 per cent of eligible voters who supported the draft constitution is hardly a ringing endorsement of the constitution or its military junta backers.

Nevertheless, 36 per cent is not an insubstantial figure either. Indeed, it is enough for a political party to win government in some Western democracies. So how can we explain the strength of is apparent antidemocratic vote?

It is important to acknowledge that, unlike during the period from the 1950s to the 1980s, the Thai military today does not rule in its own right. It has a substantial social base of support. It is backed to varying degrees by middle and upper-class Thais, the powerful bureaucracy, the judiciary, university administrations and faculty, and large Sino–Thai corporations. For historical reasons it also has significant support in the upper and middle region of southern Thailand.

The Thai military’s real role today is as the armed vanguard of what the political scientist Fred Riggs famously coined ‘the bureaucratic polity’ that has dominated the Thai state since the 1950s. Members of the bureaucratic polity have historically seen themselves as serving the king, not ‘civil servants’. Indeed the Thai word for bureaucrat, kha ratchakan, literally means, ‘the king’s servant’.

The bureaucratic polity ensures that the lion’s share of state revenue is spent on Bangkok. The best schools, universities, hospitals, as well as job opportunities are all found there. Democratisation of Thai politics threatens this concentration of resources in Bangkok. It is no wonder that the Bangkok middle and upper classes are so opposed to it.

These antidemocratic tendencies also have religious and cultural roots.

The prominent place of the kha ratchakan in Thai society receives a subtle religious justification through the ancient Buddhist doctrine of ‘merit’ (bun). The poor are poor because of their lesser merit, i.e. accumulation of good deeds in past and present lives. Morally they are inferior to the wealthy, who are wealthy because of their superior merit (good deeds).

Rallying cry

The conception that the poor have low merit slips easily into the middle class’s biggest gripe about democratic politics: the scourge of corruption. Politicians, because they represent these low merit/corrupt people, cannot themselves escape the stain of corruption. Indeed, majoritarian democracy—rule by ‘the people’—is problematic in Buddhist terms, since it means rule by people of low merit. By contrast, since the military and bureaucrats serve the king, the most meritorious being in the kingdom, they rank highly in the moral hierarchy. Of course, not all Thais are fervent Buddhists, but these ideas are over 1,000 years old. It is hard to believe they have been completely replaced by Western political thinking.

The need for government by ‘good people’ has been the rallying cry of the conservative elite since the crisis began in 2006. The preamble to the draft constitution explicitly states that it is designed to prevent people of ‘no morals’ from taking power in the country.

Rather than setting in stone for perpetuity the basic legal framework for a nation, constitutions are almost always merely the attempt by the coup group and their backers to legally extend the authority they have won through force of arms

There is also an ethnic dimension to this Bangkok–provincial political cleavage. As historian Chris Baker has pointed out in a recent article, the predominantly Sino–Thai middle class has ‘almost no affinity with rural Thailand’. Indeed, they may be more familiar with Singapore, Hong Kong or Los Angeles than the provincial regions of Thailand. For many Sino–Thai, the countryside is ‘unknown and hence fearsome’. This fear intensified in April–May 2010, when over 100,000 Red Shirt protesters, many from the northeast and north, marched into Bangkok with the aim of pressuring the elite-installed government to resign. The protests were bloodily suppressed by the military with up to 100 killed and thousands injured. One of the military leaders in charge of the crackdown, General Prayut Chan-ocha, led the 2014 coup and is now prime minister.

This is Thailand’s 20th constitution in 84 years. Each constitution has an average life of just over four years. The frequency with which constitutions have been torn up following military coups has degraded their significance. Rather than setting in stone for perpetuity the basic legal framework for a nation, constitutions are almost always merely the attempt by the coup group and their backers to legally extend the authority they have won through force of arms.

But the debate over this particular constitution comes at a unique moment in Thailand’s modern political development. After seventy years on the throne, the reign of King Bhumibol is coming to an end. Since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932 two competing conceptions of political legitimacy have been at war with each other. One holds that legitimate power lies with the monarch and is administered by his royal officials and defended by the military; the other, that it derives from the people and is exercised by their elected political representatives. This conflict has never been resolved.

Can the political domination of the bureaucratic polity survive the succession? Will the legitimacy that the monarchy confers on it and it military protectors continue under the new king? The level of repression since the 2014 coup, the draft constitution’s attempt to legally hobble any elected government and shore up bureaucratic power, and the lengths to which the regime has gone to force the referendum through, all suggest that the regime and its backers are far from certain.

Given all this, it is unlikely that this constitution will last much longer than its predecessors.

Featured image
Thai military at Chang Phueak Gate in Chiang Mai in 2014. The draft constitution is blatantly designed to entrench military rule. Photo: Takeaway, Wikimedia Commons.

Patrick Jory is senior lecturer in Southeast Asian History, University of Queensland.He is the president of the Association for Mainland Southeast Asian Studies.

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3 thoughts on “The real meaning of Thailand’s constitutional referendum”

  1. I enjoyed your analysis but may I suggest by sticking to the framework now virtually universal in political commentary on Thailand you miss out in explaining why so many lower income people especially in the South, Central and Eastern Regions are so resentful about the dominance of the Thaksin family in recent years.

    These people are not part of the Royalist military power base. The explanation lies in the way Thailand’s population is registered and the way this affects the outcome of elections given the partially proportionate electoral system. Many of the workers in manufacturing and services such as tourism come from the North and NorthEast of Thailand , the heartland of Thaksin support. They are allowed to register in their original home area even though they live in the South and Central areas consuming public services there. They vote where they are registered and vote according to how their family members in the North and NorthEast vote. It is easy therefore to get votes by buying them from those living there knowing absent family members will follow.

    Funds for hospital, schools and roads are partially dependent on per capita formulae that favour the North and North East. Drive round Chiang Rai for example and then drive from Bangkok to the Malaysian border. There is no incentive in the political system to generate a political party to represent people who feel resentful and Thailand remains like Greece and Italy with a political system that is largely patrimonial

  2. Regional rivalry is present in all democratic political systems, so in one sense, the fact that certain regions of the country are less supportive of pro-Thaksin parties than others is not exceptional.

    But it is a little surprising that the south seems to have missed out somewhat on the development funds that have been spent on the northeast and the north, which, as you say, can be seen in such things as well-developed road networks. But the real surprise is, that since the 1990s the Democrats, or military-installed governments supported by the Democrats, have been in government for the most of this time, while Thaksin was only in office in his own right for 5 years, and in the short periods that Phalang Prachachon and Puea Thai were in office his authority was significantly curtailed. If “pro-south” governments have been in office for so long, why does the south seem to receive less? Political scientists who study these questions in depth could offer a more detailed answer to this question, but anecdotally many people believe that the south is “taken for granted”. Southerners themselves joke that they would vote for a “telephone pole” if it ran under the Democrat ticket, given the way the Democrats have marketed themselves as a “party for southern people”. Tight kinship networks (which is related to the particular form of economy in the south) are also partly responsible for the way that the upper and middle south vote for the Democrats almost as a block vote. You can see this sense that the south is taken for granted in such things as the NCPO’s unwillingness to do anything about the low rubber price, which affects southern producers particularly hard, even though southerners were, by and large, cheerleaders for the military coup.

    Re. the problem of vote-buying, a great deal of research has been written on this, including an excellent article by Pasuk and Baker a couple of years ago, that shows that it is not a significant factor in political alignment these days. In any case, the Democrats, who have criticised vote-buying really as an excuse for their own inability to win elections, appear to be as bad as Puea Thai. And one might argue further that the “bureaucratic polity”, which ensures that the bulk of state revenues are spent on Bangkok, is the biggest “vote-buyer” of them all. Every time a military coup takes place the first thing they do is give a pay rise to kha ratchakans.

  3. Pingback: Jory on referendum and political future | Political Prisoners of Thailand

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