Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Thailand’s Lengthening Roadmap to Elections
Thailand’s Lengthening Roadmap to Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?
Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?
Thai Royal Guards march in front of a portrait of the King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a military parade as a part of a celebration of his upcoming birthday in Bangkok, Thailand, on 3 December 2015. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha
Report 274 / Asia

Thailand’s Lengthening Roadmap to Elections

Thailand’s military regime promised a return to democracy, but keeps prolonging its power by delaying general elections. Beyond a new constitution, Thailand needs a new social contract to resolve the crippling struggle between elected politicians and an unelected establishment that includes the army, bureaucracy and palace.

Executive Summary

On 6 September 2015, a reform council appointed by Thailand’s military-run administration, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), rejected a constitution prepared by a drafting committee it had itself appointed. With the draft scuppered, the military regime extended its tenure by at least seven months, backtracking on the roadmap to “fully-functioning democracy” it announced after the May 2014 coup and delaying a general election until mid-2017. Passage to a general election, including a new constitution subject to a national referendum, has started over. The process is unfolding against a backdrop of impending royal succession, a faltering economy and continuing political and social polarisation that military rule has failed to ease. The regime’s autocratic bent and evident determination to oversee the succession preclude an inclusive national dialogue on a political order rooted in popular sovereignty that protects the rights of all.

The country is in the grip of a conflict between forces of change and continuity that has political, economic and geographical dimensions. It manifests itself as friction between elected and unelected authority. The traditional establishment – bureaucracy, military, and palace networks – seeks to preserve the status quo in the face of socio-economic change and political claims of provincial voters. Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2001 until a coup in 2006, challenged the old guard with his ambition and electoral prowess. The establishment’s repertoire of bureaucratic oversight, constitutional engineering, judicial intervention, street protests and coups d’état failed to contain Thaksin or suppress the popular political aspirations he harnessed. Thaksin-aligned parties have won every general election since 2001. With the 69-year reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej drawing to an end and royal succession looming, the establishment required a more assertive effort to control events.

The NCPO seized power in 2014, citing the threat of continued violence after months of protests against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, elected in July 2011. Many who demanded Yingluck’s ouster saw the coup as a necessary step in eradicating corruption and what they called parliamentary dictatorship. The NCPO proclaimed a three-phase roadmap to democracy: reestablishment of security and reconciliation; an elected government; and an ongoing reform process. However, it has repeatedly postponed the projected date for a general election.

Ratification of a new constitution is a precondition of the roadmap’s second phase. The Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) produced a document that alarmed observers across the political divide. Provisions included a majority-appointed senate, allowance for an unelected prime minister and a “crisis committee” stacked with military officers empowered to override parliament and the executive in the interests of national security. The NCPO appeared to lobby its appointed reform council to reject the draft, thereby not only extending its tenure, but also sparing it the potential embarrassment of rejection by voters in a plebiscite. Few lamented the draft’s demise, but for many, its rejection casts doubt on the military’s commitment to relinquish power to an elected government. Most Thais do not expect the military to step down for several years, until well after a new king is on the throne. Some are concerned that it will use the next constitution to engineer enduring political supremacy.

A new CDC must produce a draft constitution by 1 April 2016 that will be subject to a national referendum. The failure of the 2015 draft suggests that the NCPO may not be able to issue a constitution that both satisfies its concerns about maintaining political control and is acceptable to the public. If the next draft fails, the process will start yet again. If the public approves a draft simply in order to return to elected government, the conflict between elected and unelected authority is likely to re-emerge. The NCPO has spurned the kind of deliberative drafting process that could help confer legitimacy on the next constitution and appears to be playing for time.

A handful of democracy activists have staged sporadic demonstrations, but the regime’s political opponents have mostly opted to bide their time. The NCPO faces no evident challenge to its hold on power. Nevertheless, continued harassment of regime critics betrays its insecurity, which may stem in part from arcane elite factionalism. Meanwhile, allegations of corruption have undermined its assertion of moral guardianship, and a worsening economy fuels growing discontent, which, if not assuaged, could spur more active opposition.

After a decade of turmoil, and with the king’s reign drawing to an end, most Thais appear either receptive or resigned to a period of military rule. Yet, expectation of future turmoil is pervasive. Those convinced that time is on the side of popular sovereignty cite recurring collective demands for greater democracy. But few see the military surrendering its veto over the constitutional order. Nor would a new constitution and a general election by themselves resolve the legitimacy struggle between elected and unelected authority. This requires a new social contract, best achieved through dialogue about Thailand’s political order. Necessary conditions for such a dialogue, including protection of political rights and leadership with a stake in compromise, are absent. For now, anxiety surrounding the end of the current reign and the regime’s repression of dissent rule out such a process.

Bangkok/Brussels, 10 December 2015

A Royal Thai Army Signal Corps solider awaits orders. 19 May 2010. FLICKR/null0
Op-Ed / Asia

Can Thailand Really Hide a Rebellion?

Originally published in The New York Times

On Aug. 11 and 12, coordinated bombings and arson attacks in tourist destinations in seven provinces of peninsular Thailand killed four people and injured 35. No group claimed responsibility, and senior officials of the military government almost immediately decided that the bombings were not acts of terrorism. They also dismissed any link to Malay-Muslim militants who have been waging a separatist insurgency for the past 13 years in the four southernmost provinces.

A police spokesman said, “Thailand doesn’t have conflicts regarding religion, ethnicity, territory or minority groups.”

That was an astounding statement in view of the insurgency by ethnic nationalists in the Malay-Muslim majority provinces, where violence has killed some 6,500 people since the beginning of 2004.

The prime minister, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, rushed to imply that blame should be directed at domestic political opponents loyal to two former prime ministers, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who opposed a new constitution, drafted by the military, that assured continued power for Thailand’s ruling military clique. Voters approved the draft constitution on Aug. 7, amid heavy restrictions on campaigning against the charter.

Several opponents of the government, including members of the Thaksin loyalists’ Red Shirt movement have been detained, even though the bombings do not conform to the modus operandi of earlier violence associated with pro-Thaksin groups. Neither do they bear significant similarities to the bombing of a Hindu shrine in central Bangkok in August 2015 that killed 20 people.

The bombings do, however, bear the hallmarks of operations by the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, which is known as the B.R.N. and is the main group fighting for the independence of the Malay-Muslim south of the country. The attacks were coordinated over several provinces, often employing two or more improvised explosive devices timed to detonate in sequence. The devices were small and, although lethal, were not designed or deployed to cause mass casualties. Also consistent with B.R.N. operations, there was no claim of responsibility.

Thai police investigators, contradicting the government’s narratives, said the bombs were typical of those used by militants in Thailand’s deep south. On Aug. 15, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan conceded that the bombers might have been hired from the ranks of southern militants.

Thai authorities have a long record of ascribing acts of violence to domestic political rivals. In 1993, after militants set fire to 33 schools across the three southernmost provinces, some senior officials blamed “the old power clique,” who had lost influence following a recent change in government. Following a car-bomb explosion in the garage of a shopping center on the tourist island Koh Samui in April 2015, senior officials blamed a group of politicians who had lost power after a coup the year before.

These allegations were never substantiated, and the police eventually linked the bombing to other attacks in the deep south. Officials also tried to implicate Red Shirts in the bombing of a Bangkok shrine last year.

Why is the military government so anxious to deflect attention from the Malay-Muslim insurgency? First, officials deny that Thailand is a target for terrorism, especially terrorism arising from a chronic domestic insurgency. One goal is to protect Thailand’s vital tourism industry, which indirectly contributes 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Second, the military characterizes the insurgency as “disturbances” perpetrated by misguided individuals, which serves to minimize its political implications. Many Thai officials harbor a deep fear of international intervention, which they believe would eventually lead to partition. Further, acknowledging the recent attacks as the work of Malay-Muslim militants would also mean confronting the Thai military’s own counterinsurgency failures. Voters in the three southernmost provinces emphatically rejected the draft constitution, reflecting the region’s antipathy to the military and its centralization of power.

It is true that southern insurgents have largely refrained from attacking Thai targets outside the four southernmost provinces. But there are plausible explanations for why they might have decided to expand their operations now.

Last year, the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-prevention organization, noted the possibility that the insurgents, faced with stalemate and diminishing returns from routine attacks in the deep south, might strike in tourist areas outside the traditional conflict zone. The senior leaders of the B.R.N. have rejected the military government’s faltering peace process, which to them seems designed to maintain a semblance of talks without the substance of negotiations. Now, the referendum result may have revealed the futility of expecting to engage with an elected government in Bangkok, since the draft constitution entrenches the military government’s power for at least another six years.

If, as available information indicates, Malay militants perpetrated the recent attacks, then the conflict has entered a disturbing new phase. For 13 years, the insurgency has had little effect on the lives of most Thais outside the deep south. Now, a wider insurgency risks stoking militant Buddhism and sectarian conflict.

Early last year, in spite of a ban on political gatherings of five or more people, large Buddhist demonstrations were held against a halal-industry zone in Chiang Mai and the construction of a new mosque in Nan Province in northern Thailand. Last October, a monk in Bangkok urged that a mosque be burned for every monk killed in the deep south.

It would be shortsighted and self-defeating of the generals running Thailand to insist on dismissing these latest attacks as a partisan vendetta unconnected to the conflict in the south. They should recognize the insurgency as a political problem requiring a political solution. That means restoring the rights of freedom of expression and assembly to Thai citizens, engaging in genuine dialogue with militants, and finding ways to devolve power to the region.