Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Thailand has had 18 “disposable” constitutions since 1932, most of them having being torn up by the military following a coup d’état. But it would be wrong to think that this treatment of constitutions was the root cause of political instability or any democratic deficit. Constitutions throughout the world can be rough guides to political practice; can act as a set of rules imposed by the ruling elite, or they can form ideal standards for civil rights which activists strive to achieve. What really matters in Thailand and elsewhere is the balance of forces between the ruling elites and the general population.
The U.K. has a constantly evolving constitution based on struggle against the ruling class and also on “custom and practice”. Democratic rights were not achieved by drafting a “democratic constitution”, but by constant struggle from below against the entrenched interests of the ruling class, spanning a period from the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, through the English Revolution of 1640 to the Chartist movement in the mid-nineteenth century and beyond.
The written constitution of the United States was crafted by the elites in order to protect their privileges. It was a compromise between the slave owners in the South and the industrial capitalists of the North. Even when a series of amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were adopted, the civil rights of citizens were constantly ignored and it was many years before various struggles from below gave men and women of all races formal constitutional equality . Of course, formal equality according to the law is no guarantee of equality in practice or even a participatory democracy. The United States has neither of these. Neither does Thailand.
Various Thai constitutions have also reflected struggles against the ruling elites. The most democratic constitutions were written after the 1932 revolution against the monarchy and after the 1992 uprising against the military dictatorship. However, in the main, Thai constitutions are generally a set of rules imposed by the ruling elites and nearly all of them, except the first post-1932 constitution, reflect the use of the monarchy in order to give legitimacy to the power of the military in its intervention in politics. Yet the role of the military in politics is never explicitly mentioned.
The first section of these elite-driven constitutions also states that Thailand is an “indivisible unitary state”, which is an obstacle to achieving peace in the southern conflict. Both the domination of politics by the military and the ultra-nationalist concept of the “indivisible unitary state” have been vigorously contested by social and political movements.
The constitution written by the military in 2007, one year after the coup d’état that toppled the elected government of Taksin Shinawat, went one step further in entrenching the role of the military. It absolved the coup makers of any wrong-doing and enshrined the power of the judiciary to intervene against elected governments. The judiciary has long been a conservative ally of the military.
However, according to progressive academic Niti Eauwsiwong, what is also interesting is that ordinary Thais have an un-written “popular constitution” in their minds, where they have clear views on how politics should be conducted, irrespective of any formal elite-driven constitutions. We could call this “political culture” and we should be aware that there is more than one single political culture in any society.
The struggle of social movements and oppositional political groups is much more important than constitutions in determining the state of freedom and democracy in. A study of Thai history reveals the presence of a political culture associated with the struggle for democracy, freedom and justice. High points of such struggles include the 1932 revolution, the 1973 and 1992 uprisings against the military, the rebellion by the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), the rebellion by southern Malay Muslims, and the recent Red Shirt struggles against the military-backed government between 2008 and 2011.
Today, the military and its academic and political servants are busy writing yet another constitution. It is no surprise or secret that it will probably be one of the worst that Thailand has ever had. It will further enshrine the authoritarian power of the military and the conservative elites and severely restrict any freedom to elect a democratic government. There will be meaningless phrases about gender rights and freedom of the press, but they will merely be like a sprinkling of icing sugar over a poisoned cake. Yet this does not stop many bird-brained NGOs from making suggestions on how various rights can be improved in this piece of political toilet paper.