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Thailand’s Lengthening Roadmap to Elections
Thailand’s Lengthening Roadmap to Elections
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse
Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse
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

Op-Ed / Asia

Government, Rebels Must End Pernicious Impasse

Originally published in Bangkok Post

The government and the rebels in the South are talking, and their words say they want to find a way to end the insurgency, but their actions suggest both sides would prefer the current dreadful stalemate to the difficult compromises that would be necessary for real peace.

The talks between government officials and Majlis Syura Patani (Patani Consultative Council) or Mara Patani, the umbrella body of five separatist groups, have made little progress and the main insurgent group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani (Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, BRN), has kept aloof from the process. A pernicious stalemate prevails, with both state and militants preferring hostilities to compromise.

Unlike a mutually destructive stalemate that compels compromise, the impasse in the far South is anodyne; though dreadful, it is insufficiently painful -- for the combatants at least -- to force them to seek a negotiated end to the conflict. The Thai government and BRN both have ready explanations for their reluctance resolve the conflict through talks.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) professes to support dialogue to end the insurgency but has refused to endorse an official dialogue process with the Mara Patani. The NCPO appears to be caught between being seen, by local people and the international community, to do the right thing by talking and an abiding fear bordering on paranoia that dialogue will elevate the status of the separatists, paving the way for international intervention and eventual partition of the country.

For its part, BRN has rejected the existing process and impugned the Thai government's sincerity. It insists it will only join a dialogue process with international mediation and observers, a stipulation that stokes the regime's fears of internationalisation. But the BRN also seems to be inhibited by its own parochialism, evident in the lack of a detailed political platform and capacity to participate constructively in talks.

And without the BRN, the insurgent negotiators have a legitimacy problem. The Mara Patani was formed in 2015 specifically to negotiate with the government, but many observers doubt they can speak for a critical mass of fighters, or that they have the broad political networks within the southern provinces that would allow them to truly represent the views of ordinary people. Professed BRN members hold leading positions in the Mara Patani, but do not have the sanction of the group's leadership.

Meanwhile, with local civil society increasingly stifled, prospects for bringing popular pressure to bear for genuine dialogue are slim. On Wednesday, a network of civil society groups in the deep South organised a seminar in Pattani to commemorate the International Day of Peace. Although organisers had earlier obtained permission to hold the event, local authorities shut it down.

Under these circumstances, dialogue is stymied and violence persists. Coordinated bombings on Aug 11-12 bear the hallmarks of insurgent operations and represent a worrying escalation. These Mother's Day attacks on popular tourist areas north of the customary conflict zone in the southernmost provinces killed four people and wounded 30. Although senior officials continue to deny any connection between the bombings and the insurgency, police investigations indicate that insurgents carried out the attacks and all related arrest warrants are for Malay-Muslims.

Having crossed the threshold of operations against tourist targets, there is a real prospect the rebels will stage further attacks outside the customary conflict zone. The Mother's Day bombings indicate the militants' capacity to inflict greater damage on lives, property and the economy. This would be disastrous. They may succeed in damaging the tourism industry, but at the cost of pushing the government toward an iron-fisted response with enthusiastic support from a broader Thai public that to date has been largely indifferent to the insurgency. In turn, an enhanced security response risks fostering state abuses that fuel militant narratives of Siamese oppression, and potentially open the door to more extreme radicalisation. Should future attacks cause foreign fatalities, the BRN risks earning the international community's opprobrium, which it has so far avoided. 

The Mother's Day attacks illustrate the risks of pursuing a pro forma dialogue that leaves out the main insurgent group. The NCPO should reconsider its approach of containing the insurgency and seeking militant capitulation rather than a comprehensive political solution. The government needs to develop avenues of exchange with the BRN's leaders aimed at starting official peace talks. The NCPO should also restore rights to freedom of expression and assembly. A lasting resolution to the conflict requires sustained public participation.

The BRN should reciprocate any overtures from Bangkok and be prepared to show gestures of goodwill up to and including a ceasefire to demonstrate that it is genuinely interested in a compromise solution. The BRN should subordinate military operations to pursuit of viable political ends and observe its obligations under International Humanitarian Law, including an end to attacks on civilians.

Mara Patani can still play a constructive role, but it should be candid about the extent of its influence inside Thailand and work toward a broader dialogue that includes the BRN.

Divisions and capacity constraints pose major challenges but are a less immediate obstacle than a lack of determination to negotiate a settlement. The belligerents need to take seriously their obligation to those they claim to represent to find a peaceful resolution, based on a decentralised political order that respects local identity and aspirations while preserving the unitary state. The government needs to understand that there will be no peace without compromise, and that a degree of autonomy does not necessarily lead to national dissolution.