Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Can't stand Thailand’s Prayut? Swallow the charter draft

After the solace offered to us by religious holidays and Mother's Day this month, thrills will come thick and fast in September. Thai politics has been hibernating long enough, and, if analysts are correct, it will wake up a few days from now with a vengeance.


We will all sit in the front row and see why August's preaching of Buddhist "detachment" and "family values" is little more than wishful thinking for 2015.

The charter draft's fate is about to be revealed.

Rejection or approval will bring different sets of serious problems.

If the draft is approved then it will move onto a path strewn with landmines heading towards a public referendum. If it's rejected, the already-shaken credibility of the coup will be further undermined. People will ask Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha where the "reform" that he promised is. Worse, many will see the draft's abortion as part of a well-crafted plan to extend his stay in power, because the "reform road map" would require a new draft to be written.

One might be tempted to think that "approval" would lead to less serious problems. A public referendum on the Thai charter, however, won't be as simple as when the Scots had to decide whether to wave goodbye to the United Kingdom or when the Greeks had to vote on whether to say "Screw you" to their country's creditors. Compared to the Thai vote, these national referendums seem like classrooms selecting student heads.

Thailand's charter referendum contains complications wherever you stand. While it won't be easy for our military rulers, it will be just as tough for the anti-coup people. If the anti-military camp campaigns against the draft and wins, chances are that the general election they crave will be further delayed. If they support the draft, they will in effect offer legitimacy to a coup they abhor.

However, if you support Pheu Thai and are confident of an election victory, why not let the charter draft survive and deal with it later? You think you can always amend the "military-installed Constitution" some other time, right? Well, isn't that what the Yingluck government had in mind when it came to power on the back of a landslide election triumph?

Yet saying "Yes" or "No" to the draft charter may pale in significance next to the question that many expect will come up in the referendum: How much longer should Prayut stay in power? When the reform council votes on the charter draft early next month, this question will hang over the heads of all its members. If they approve the draft, they will effectively kick-start the referendum process. In fact, they will need to consider right away whether the referendum should include the Prayut question.

I call it the "Prayut question" just to make it easily understandable. The referendum ballot won't be so obvious, of course. It is more likely to ask voters two questions: A) Do you approve this charter draft? B) Do you want reform before election, or not?

Faced with this format, if you hate Prayut and the charter draft, you have two options. You say "No" to both and (if you win) grit your teeth when the reform process starts all over again with Prayut likely still at the helm. Or you say "Yes" to A and "No" to B and hope for the best.

The reform council will cease to exist soon and be replaced by another council whose name means it's supposed to "drive" reform forward. The writing of a new draft, if needed, will take place under this second council. More complications will ensue, but for the time being let's focus on the current charter draft.

Simply put, if the existing draft is rejected, an election will be delayed by several months. If it's approved, the election timeframe will depend on how Thais vote on the Prayut question.

Will there actually be a vote on Prayut? A decision on that will be made early next month. If the Prayut vote is called, the best-case scenario for the anti-military camp will be for the existing draft to sail through and for Thais to overwhelmingly demand an immediate election. But things could be beyond that camp's control if the reform council kills the existing draft on the spot.

Complex, isn't it? Now it's clearer why Suthep Thaugsuban had to leave the monastery and re-enter politics. Prayut wouldn't have been able to handle it on his own. Actually, Thailand's situation has reached a point where nobody could handle it alone. Well, that's understating it. The Thai situation has reached a point where the smallest development can have huge implications. The Nation, Bangkok


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