Constitutional and political reforms in Thailand: deconstructing the Junta’s vision

By Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, 29 October 2014
General Prayuth Chan-Ocha (center) overthrew a care taker government in May
General Prayuth Chan-Ocha (center) overthrew a care taker government in May

Five months after the May 2014 coup that returned Thailand to military rule, the country’s ruling junta, under the auspices of the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO), finally approved the list of members of the National Reform Council (NRC). The NRC joins the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) as one of three key transitional institutions provided for by the Interim Constitution. The third, still to be created, is the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC), which will conduct the technical task of drafting the new constitution.  In addition to making policy recommendations to the NCPO and the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) on specified key areas, the NRC will also provide an outline of the new constitution for the CDC, twenty members of which shall be from the NRC itself. The NRC will later approve the constitution draft before it comes into effect. If current the Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha is to be believed, this development marks the beginning of the return to—in his own words—‘true and sustainable’ democracy.

Many Thais have good reason to remain skeptical about such promises. While it is premature to pass judgment on the NRC, it is important to note that the body has not been created as an independent organ. This is evident from its composition and from the process by which it was chosen. Its members were selected through a complicated selection mechanism that places the NCPO at the center of the process. In line with Article 30 of the Interim Constitution, its 250 members were drawn from a list prepared by two recruitment panels. One of these panels was charged with recommending nominees appointed to represent each of Thailand’s 77 provinces on the NRC. The other panel was charged with recommending names from eleven specific areas identified by the Article 27 of the Interim Charter as the focus areas for reforms. These include politics, public administration, law and justice, local administration, education, economy, energy, media, society, public health and environment and miscellaneous. Under Article 30(2), the members of both recruitment panels were appointed by the NCPO.  From the lists prepared by both panels, the NCPO reserved the final authority to draw up a final list of 250 members who the King formally appointed to the NRC. This meant that it was able to still pack the body with its sympathizers.

For instance, even if the NRC is, comparatively, perceived as having fewer military officers and as being more diverse than the NLA, its composition still reflects a preference for bureaucrats and for opponents of the Sinawatra family (the so called anti-Thaksin group). Many of its members are known supporters of the yellow shirts movement whose agenda is to eliminate the Sinawatra family’s influence on Thai politics. There are few genuine pro-democracy activists or supporters on the body. More than half are army generals, civil servants and public university professors who are sympathetic to the regime. This raises serious concerns about the credibility and integrity of the body’s members as well as fears about their ability to reflect the diversity of Thai society.

A second, related, criticism is that most members of the NRC are well known technocrats who have been key players on the Thai political scene in the past two decades. Many served as members of the cabinet and other government committees following the 2006 military take-over. Others were part of the reform processes that resulted in the short-lived and ineffective Constitutions of 1997 and 2007 and in the constitutional amendments in 2010. This creates doubts about the wisdom of relying on more or less the same political actors to bring change. One reason for this is the fact that Thailand’s current political predicament—especially if one factors in the apparent feud between the pro-Sinawatra red shirts and the anti-Sinawatra yellow shirts—can be traced to the political conflicts of those two decades. Many of those sitting in the NRC today have a historical connection with those political conflicts and it is therefore difficult to see them as disinterested parties.

Thirdly, many of its members are perceived as elitists with a political ideology that is both paternalistic and conservative, who are believed to harbour negative opinions of democratic values such as the public participation. In their view, the majority of Thais is not sufficiently educated to be trusted with such endeavor and therefore must rely on their expert guidance. In fact, some of them believe that even democratically elected politicians should only be allowed to perform their public duties under the guidance of a superior body of educated experts. Ekkachai Srivilas, the director of the college of peace and good governance at King Prajadhipok’s Institute and an NRC member suggested, for instance, that the NLA work under the supervision of the NRC.  Another member of member of the NRC and a prominent political scientist, Chai-anan Samudavanija, cautioned against the selection of a Prime Minister through a popular electoral process and instead recommended that a specially selected committee of five members be entrusted with the task of selecting a Prime Minister. These sound very much like the role assigned to the Grand Council of Fascism, a powerful institution under Mussolini’s Italy with the responsibility to choose successors to the Prime Minister, decide the membership and function of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.

Other undemocratic ideas coming from the body are proposals that those wishing to enterpolitics be subjected to a moral test, or more specifically a Buddhist moral test. With such a cast of characters, it is hard to conceive the NRC as the body capable of delivering the change that Thailand needs.  If anything, it looks more like the perfect vehicle for facilitating the entrenchment of the military establishment’s grip on power.

Another limitation relates to the reform mandate of the NRC. As noted earlier, the Interim Charter identifies eleven substantive areas for reform. And while it specifically mentions certain areas of socio-economic importance such as energy, health and education, there is no specific mention of fundamental freedoms and human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law. Instead there are vague references to politics, law and justice and ‘miscellaneous’, as other areas of reform suggesting that  genuine democratic reforms may not be a priority for the junta.

Beyond the inherent limitations of the NRC, an even bigger concern is the overbearing presence of the NCPO itself, which lacks commitment to reform. The NCPO has promised to return the country to democratic rule. With little or no incentive for that, however, it is not inconceivable that the process might go on indefinitely. According to the Interim Constitution, the NRC must complete its work within 300 days of its establishment. That would mean finalizing the Constitution and pacing the way for elections by October 2015. Yet, some of General Prayuth’s supporters are already indicating that 2015 is too early for elections, and the General is already on record stating that he is not in a hurry to reform the country as Thailand is no stranger to protracted transitions. Field Marshall Sarit Thanaratana, one of Thailand’s most brutal dictators, once governed the country under an interim Constitution for a decade.

As mentioned earlier, the new military  regimejunta has promised a return to democratic order but its implementation of the roadmap towards that goal so far only begs the question of  what it means by democracy and what kind of ‘democratic order’ it envisages. The regime regime started off with an Interim Constitution that is far from being democratic; amongst its other features, it grants the NCPO extensive emergency powers and immunity for all its actions, past and future. The transitional institutions created so far—beginning with the NLA to the NRC— are anti-democratic in both their composition and political ideology. As I have written elsewhere, the NLA, like the NRC, is a collection of unrepresentative junta sympathizers with questionable democratic credentials. So what kind of democratic constitutional order are Thailand’s current leaders building? There are no immediate answers to these questions but given the reality that is unfolding on the ground, it is a critical question which Thais must ask in order to better manage expectations.       

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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