Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Ordering Peace: Thailand's 2016 Constitutional Referendum

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Ordering Peace: Thailand's 2016 Constitutional Referendum

Article excerpt

Thailand's August 2016 constitutional referendum marked the second occasion on which a military junta has sought popular endorsement to legitimize its efforts to reform the country's political system. As in the previous referendum of August 2007, Thai voters endorsed military plans to reduce levels of democracy. Draconian moves by the regime curtailed open debate about the content of the draft constitution, which virtually nobody had read. Partly as a result of the junta's suppression of dissent, "No" votes declined--but the draft charter was still opposed by almost 40 per cent of voters, testifying to continuing high levels of political polarization along regional lines. This article argues that the referendum process may have helped the military to impose order on Thai society during the difficult period of royal transition, but did not create any genuine peace between the country's fractious competing groups and interests.

Keywords: Thailand, constitution, referendum, military, peace.

On 7 August 2016, Thais voted to endorse a new draft constitution that significantly curtailed the political power voters had enjoyed under both the 1997 and 2007 Constitutions. The constitutional referendum was called by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the military junta that seized power in the 22 May 2014 coup d'etat. (1) Headed by Prime Minister and former army chief General Prayut Chan-ocha, the NCPO followed previous recent Thai juntas (including those responsible for the coups of 1977, 1991 and 2006) in abrogating the existing constitution and later forming a constitution-drafting committee tasked with preparing a new charter. The NCPO leadership was the most hardline group of coup-makers since 1976, and their seizure of power was accompanied by widespread and lengthy repression of political dissent. Why did the majority of the electorate endorse a document which was much more draconian than the 2007 charter, let alone the much praised 1997 "people's constitution"?

This article argues that the military junta successfully used coercive measures to supress participatory democracy, claiming that such draconian means were necessary to ensure peace and order. The referendum period from March to August 2016 was characterized by misinformation, direct repression and both implicit and explicit threats of violence. From the outset, voters lacked enthusiasm both for the draft charter and for the referendum itself. Because the NCPO actively curtailed critical discussion, voter understanding of the charter was at best inadequate, and at worst downright confused. The resulting referendum did not reflect a genuine public choice between two alternatives. Furthermore, it did nothing to reconcile the country's fractious competing groups and interests, beyond imposing crude and superficial notions of order.

In contrast with earlier juntas, the NCPO was little concerned about legal niceties. In the wake of the 2014 coup, Thailand lacked even an interim constitution for two months, and had no prime minister or cabinet for three months. When an interim constitution was promulgated on 22 July 2014, it included a notorious catch-all clause, Article 44, which gave General Prayut absolute power to override bureaucratic and budgetary processes as he saw fit. Whereas the 1991 and 2007 juntas had sought to reassure the public and the international community that fresh elections would be held within a year or so, the NCPO was very reluctant to commit to any such timetable. However, in late 2014, under pressure from civilian elites, the NCPO began the process of drafting a new constitution. (2)

While it has become fashionable to see conservative forces in Thailand as a part of a highly unified state apparatus, the reality is much more messy and ambiguous. Between September 2014 and September 2015, the NCPO engaged in a protracted dance with its own thirty-six-member Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC), chaired by a distinguished legal academic, Professor Borwornsak Uwanno, whom Duncan McCargo has elsewhere termed "the chief legal ideologue of the monarchical network". …

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