Thailand Struggles to Break Out of The Cycle of Unrest
Thailand Struggles to Break Out of The Cycle of Unrest
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Thailand Struggles to Break Out of The Cycle of Unrest

The approval of the Thai military regime's draft constitution on Aug. 7 marks a triumphant comeback for "Thai-style democracy," a term that dates back to the military dictatorship of the 1950s, but which has become a euphemism for the supremacy of unelected officials, carefully selected by and from the national elite to ensure that the will of the people does not get out of hand.

Although touted by the regime as a milestone on its roadmap to democracy, a bulwark against corruption, and a cure for almost a decade of political turmoil, the new constitution is more likely to deepen Thailand's political divisions. Some 61% of voters voted in favor, but turnout was just 59%. This means that only a third of eligible voters cast ballots in favor of the draft. Nervertheless, the result is a victory for the ruling National Council for Peace and Order and its allies, and a defeat for representative politics.

Under the new constitution, Thailand's 20th since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, the 250-member senate will be appointed by the NCPO, and the lower house will be largely ornamental, a fig leaf for continued military rule, scrutinized and disciplined by powerful, unelected watchdog agencies. The Constitutional Court, which has reliably ruled against challenges to the status quo since 2006, will have unprecedented powers to intervene in the legislative and executive branches. The upshot is that power will remain with the military, specifically the army's Queen's Guard faction -- known as the "Eastern Tigers"-- that staged the last coup and dominates the NCPO.

The referendum process was flawed. The regime prohibited any open debate about the issues, and passed a law that made campaigning against the draft punishable by up to 10 years in prison -- more than 100 "no" vote campaigners were arrested in the run-up to the poll. Meanwhile, the government bureaucracy supported the regime's "yes" campaign. Voters were exposed almost exclusively to information provided by the Constitution Drafting Committee and the Election Commission, which glossed over controversial provisions and portrayed the draft as a means to stability.

Thailand is preparing for the looming royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the world's longest-reigning monarch, but he is now 88 and ailing. The aura of the king is as intangible as it is ubiquitous, and his passing will fundamentally change the power equation in Thailand. But the generals under Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who is now out of uniform but very much still of the military, have designed a system to suppress dissent rather than accommodate change.

Vicious cycles

Even in the short term, this new constitution offers little hope of delivering the kingdom from the cycle of public unrest and military and judicial coups of the past decade. First, it does not address the fundamental political problem that has driven conflict since the 1970s: a lack of a social consensus on what constitutes a legitimate political order. The story of modern Thai politics is that of conflict and accommodation between the paternalistic, hierarchical order inherited from the absolute monarchy, embodied in the durable alliance of palace, bureaucracy and military, and recurring demands for inclusion and equality from below, exemplified in the expansion of electoral politics. The new constitution shifts the weight of power to appointed officials, reflecting the elite's contempt for elected representatives.

Second, Thai constitutionalism cannot resolve the conflict between elected and unelected authority because the military does not consent to constitutional constraints. With few exceptions, Thai constitutions have not served to create impartial institutions and a level playing field, but instead have consolidated the power of those who commissioned them. And they are not sacrosanct. Those who wield power tear up constitutions as soon as they become inconvenient, as the recurrence of coups d'etat, and the failure of courts to hold coup makers to account, attest. As a result, Thailand has averaged a new constitution roughly every four years since 1932.

The closest precedent for the system envisioned by the 20th constitution may be the semi-democracy under Prime Minister General Prem Tinsulanonda (1980-1988), now chief of the Privy Council, which advises the king. It was marked by an unelected prime minister, unstable coalitions and an appointed senate that functioned as the bureaucratic-military party. While many Thais are nostalgic for this era, which coincided with a period of explosive economic growth, some tend to overlook the fact it was also a period of lively parliamentary politics and rampant corruption. From 1979-2001, there were 25 governing coalitions and 43 cabinets. Corruption scandals brought down all four coalition governments between 1988 and 1997.

Those who voted in favor of the new constitution in the belief it would deliver stability, curb corruption and pave the way to a swift general election are likely to be disappointed.

Thai-style democracy, which concentrates power in the hands of unaccountable elites and treats citizens as beneficiaries of noblesse oblige, is not going to bring reconciliation to Thailand. It will not institute the desperately needed reforms in education and economic policy that will lift the country out of the middle-income trap and address its tremendous income inequality. And it will not provide the conditions for the free, open and inclusive dialogue needed to achieve a new consensus on political legitimacy, in which all Thais are equal under the nation's highest law.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.