Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Peopling Thailand's 2015 Draft Constitution

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Peopling Thailand's 2015 Draft Constitution

Article excerpt

"We hope that this constitution will bring about a paradigm shift." (1) Following the 22 May 2014 military coup in Thailand, a committee was appointed to draft a new constitution. This article reviews the competing understandings of the Thai people that emerged during the drafting of the new constitution, and attempts to explain why the draft constitution was rejected by another military-appointed body in September 2015. It argues that during the drafting process, liberal royalists sought to reclaim the people as active citizens in order to create a more moral nation in which elected politicians would be subordinated to the popular will. However, this conception was not shared by the ruling junta, and in the end, the military deliberately sabotaged the new constitution that they themselves had commissioned. The episode offers telling insights into the internal dynamics of Thailand's troubled politics and society.

Thailand's abortive 2015 draft constitution was crafted by two closely linked elites: the retired and serving army generals who formed the core of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), and the civilian legal experts who comprised the thirty-six-member Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC). Both of these elites invoked notions of the populace in support of their visions for the country's future. However, close scrutiny reveals that military notions of prachachon (the people) differed significantly from the CDC's idea of phonlamueang (citizens). And neither the army nor the legal specialists invoked the generally understood meanings of the people contained in the ground-breaking 1997 "People's Constitution". Prachachon was a term used by the army for a depoliticized population, operating under military tutelage. Phonlamueang was a term favoured by royal legalists, connoting "active citizens" who were dedicated to monitoring abuses by elected politicians, animated by deep-rooted loyalty to the nation and the monarchy. By contrast, the 1997 Constitution was characterized by extensive consultation and popular participation which gave "the people" a strong sense of ownership. No such participation was envisaged either by the military or by the CDC in 2015. Nevertheless, there were real tensions between the political imaginaries of the NCPO and the CDC, tensions which contributed to the eventual failure of the drafting process.

Thai Constitutionalism

The idea that a new constitution might "reset" Thailand's politics is far from new: variations on this theme were articulated in 1932, 1974, 1997 and 2007. As this author has argued elsewhere, Thailand is at the opposite end of the spectrum from the monumental, sacralized constitutions of countries such as Japan and the United States: short documents that are rarely, if ever, amended. (2) Thailand has an iterative constitution, one that is constantly being changed to reflect political vicissitudes. In a talk given at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand (FCCT) on 8 April 2015, two leading drafters of the proposed new constitution, Borwornsak Uwanno and Navin Damrigan, noted that the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Haiti and Ecuador have all had more constitutions than Thailand's nineteen. They quickly added: "This is not something to be proud of. But there are reasons behind that." (3) Why, then, does Thailand find itself in such unlikely company?

Constitutionalism is a political disease that has long afflicted Thailand. The disease has two main symptoms: legalism and moralism. Most studies of Thai constitutions and constitution-drafting have focused on the ways in which successive drafters have sought to deploy legal engineering to shape politics and society--a "rules of the game" approach. Yet this emphasis on legalism can sometimes occlude the moral dimensions of Thai public life, in which quasi-Buddhist rhetoric about advancing virtue and opposing evil is all-pervasive. The 2015 draft constitution, issued on 17 April 2015, was the first Thai charter in which legal language was overtly overlaid with a discourse of moralism. …

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