The Contrecoup in Thailand

Thailand hasn’t had as many coups and constitutions as, say, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, but it outdoes them for fastest turnover: The average lifespan of a Thai constitution is a bit more than four years.

In May of last year, after months of street protests, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha and other senior military officials overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. And the junta, following that hallowed tradition of Thai coup-makers, promptly abolished the country’s 18th “permanent” constitution.

It proposed a new one in April. Supposedly the centerpiece of the regime’s roadmap to “sustainable democracy,” the draft constitution is a major step backward. And the junta’s recent announcement that the text will be put to a popular referendum seems like a badly concealed ploy to extend its time in power, since holding the referendum means postponing general elections until at least August or September 2016.

With every attempt to justify its tenure, the junta undercuts its legitimacy.

The draft constitution weakens political parties. It proposes that the Senate be largely appointed. It allows for an unelected prime minister. The section entitled “Good Leaderships and Desirable Political System” forbids anyone in office from exercising “powers and duties to establish political popularity which may be detrimental to the national economic system or the public in the long run.”

The text also creates an array of mechanisms and watchdog bodies that could remove elected politicians. Most prominent and problematic is the National Moral Assembly: Composed mostly of appointed officials, it could start impeachment investigations under a Code of Ethics that has yet to be specified.

General Prayuth’s constitution, despite including buzzwords like “participation,” “accountabilities” and “sustainable fairness,” will only glue into place an undemocratic political system and philosophy. The draft is a step down from the 2007 constitution, which itself was a step down from the 1997 constitution — the so-called people’s constitution and arguably Thailand’s most democratic to date.

Most of the 1997 charter’s drafters had been elected. Its text was subjected to a thorough public consultation. It included extensive, and unprecedented, protections for political and social rights. And it provided for a stronger executive and stronger political parties, and for checks and balances.

The 1997 constitution may have been a bit too democratic, actually, at least for the traditional elites in Bangkok: big business owners, ultraconservative royalists and high-ranking military and government officials. Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms magnate and provincial politician, was elected prime minister in 2001 on a populist platform promoting universal health care, agricultural subsidies and access to capital in rural areas. He won the allegiance of farmers, laborers and the poor, mostly in the populous north and northeast, and instilled in them an appetite for democratic values and constitutional order.

The Bangkok elites, alleging that the Thaksin government was corrupt and had monopolized power, staged a coup against him in 2006. They put together a new constitution, which, by scaling back on democratic freedoms, was supposed to prevent the return of populist undesirables to power. But the years since have followed the same pattern, with pro-Thaksin parties repeatedly winning elections and the Bangkok elites repeatedly arranging for their removal, either through the courts or the military.

Almost as soon as General Prayuth and his junta ousted Ms. Yingluck last year, it seemed clear that they intended to stay put for a long while. Virtually all their appointees to the National Legislative Assembly, the National Reform Council and the Constitution Drafting Committee are ultraconservative Bangkok-based bureaucrats, generals, academics and businesspeople. And the entire constitution-drafting exercise looks like an elaborate delaying tactic designed to keep those people in place.

Late last year, under pressure from both foreign governments and Thai political parties, the junta unveiled a roadmap for reforms, including plans for a new constitution, leading up to a general election in February 2016. But then the draft came. Predictably, that text was widely decried, not only by pro-Thaksin and pro-democracy groups, but by political parties of all stripes. And just as predictably, the parties that had been clamoring for an election suddenly stopped: Anything was better than seeing this constitution implemented.

The junta then played coy about holding a referendum: It balked at the idea at first, only to relent as though it were responding to public opinion. Except, of course, that organizing a referendum requires postponing the election, and as long as the election is postponed, the junta stays in power.

This is a dangerous game. For one thing, Thais might vote down the constitution in a referendum. The only other time such a plebiscite was held was in 2007; the people have seen what little good came from their voting yes then; and the current draft is even less democratic than that one was. A no vote would be a severe rebuke for the junta, an indictment of its coup and a major loss of legitimacy — reason enough for General Prayuth to step down.

But would he? Why? What was this coup all about, anyway? It certainly was not about democracy. Rather, it was about putting in place a system to keep Thaksin & Co. out of power. Mr. Thaksin represents the other Thailand, the Thailand of the countryside, and traditionalists see him as an usurper. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is often portrayed as a monarch of the people, and dedicated to the poor. Mr. Thaksin took his place, in effect, shaking the foundations of the Thai state’s sense of identity.

In a kind of conservative reflex, General Prayuth and the traditional elites are now turning to the monarchy to reclaim legitimacy. They have redoubled efforts to root out people they perceive as threats to the royal family, invoking the country’s very strict lèse-majesté laws to imprison dissenters for unimaginably long terms, often over trifling statements. Who will succeed Bhumibol, 87 and ailing, is of ultimate concern to the junta.

Yet it is a concern that only betrays just how out of touch with the new Thailand the generals are. They still think the monarchy is the country’s ultimate unifying symbol, even though its influence has been declining since the mid-2000s.

There was a time when a Thai military junta could overthrow an elected government, tear up the constitution, get a court to legitimize its coup, receive the throne’s blessing, write up a new constitution, grant itself an amnesty for all its troubles, and call it a day. Not anymore.

David Streckfuss is the author of Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason, and Lèse-Majesté.

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