Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The Thai junta’s so-called “referendum” on its authoritarian constitution is not a genuine democratic referendum. It is being conducted in a climate of fear, bullying and harassment. Those wishing to oppose the constitution and campaign for a “No Vote” have been constantly arrested and thrown in jail and their literature confiscated. Even neutral meetings to discuss the constitution have been banned. Independent media have been raided by soldiers. The military controlled media is giving a one-sided, pro-junta view of this appalling constitution and soldiers are being sent into communities to “explain” the “benefits” of the constitution to the public.
The junta’s paranoia has reached such levels that two 8 year old girls who tore a voter registration list because they wanted its pink paper have been arrested.
The police will have more difficulty arresting a group of monkeys or the temple dogs that tore up registration lists in two other locations!
The junta’s paranoia is understandable and says much about the Thai political situation. Military coups in Thailand today can only be justified to the public if they claim to be carried out to prevent corruption and to “reform” democracy. The present junta had to say that when they had re-written the constitution they would put it to a referendum and then allow elections. This is because most Thai citizens have a democratic political culture and no longer tolerate permanent dictatorship. Military juntas, past and present, lie that under their rule Thailand is still a “democracy”.
Even generalissimo Prayut cannot just come out and say that he wants to make military rule a permanent feature. Yet that is exactly what their draft constitution aims to do through the back door. This is something which is understood by politically conscious Thais, especially those who are part of groups or social media networks which have analysed the document. So the referendum is a necessary but risky move on the part of the military.
This wretched draft constitution should be rejected because it is drawn up by people who have contempt for democracy and contempt for most citizens. This is reflected in the ridiculous “prologue” which also justifies and white-washes all the actions of the military junta. There are a number of measures which increase the powers of military appointed bodies over elected governments and parliament. It allows for a non-member of parliament to become Prime Minister in certain circumstances and there is a special additional question in the referendum which asks if people would like the parliament and senate to vote together to appoint someone from the junta to be the Prime Minister after the first elections. Of course the senate is to be fully appointed by the junta. In addition, the formula for determining the number of members of parliament favours the Democratic Party.
The constitution is the most neo-liberal constitution ever drafted in Thailand. At a stroke it turns the clock back and virtually abolishes the universal health care scheme and the right to free secondary education. It also entrenches Theravada Buddhism at the expense of other beliefs.
If the majority of voters vote it down it will be a huge slap in the face for Prayut and his junta and they will lose all remaining legitimacy. Yet their climate of fear, bullying and lies might just deliver them a yes vote. We have to be prepared for both eventualities.
Some people may vote to accept the constitution just to be able to move towards an election, hoping that the constitution can be amended in Future. Yet they will be disappointed. The rules for amending the constitution mean that it will be impossible for a democratically elected government to change the constitution without permission from the military and its conservative allies.
There have been some activists who have advocated a boycott of the referendum. However, in the absence of a huge campaign for a boycott, this will be ineffective and hand a Yes Vote to the junta. The best tactic is to support the existing campaign for a No Vote.
If a No Vote is successful there should be mass protests to demand the ousting of the junta. But nothing is automatic and such protests need to be built. If the Yes Vote wins, we need to be clear that neither the referendum nor the constitution have any democratic legitimacy. The struggle for democracy must therefore continue.