While much of the world’s attention — including that of ASEAN — has focused on the Brexit referendum, another one that took place much closer to home has been left unnoticed. On Aug. 7, 61 percent of those who voted in Thailand’s referendum approved a new constitution — the kingdom’s 20th version — which critics argue strengthens the military junta’s (National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO) grip on power at the expense of Thailand’s parliamentary democratic system.
While the referendum passed off peacefully, with major political leaders accepting the public’s verdict, it should be noted that voter turnout was low at only 59 percent.
Given that the military junta had targeted an 80 percent turnout, the numbers suggest that the majority of Thailand’s 50 million registered voters were against the new constitution and either actively expressed their opposition by voting “no” at the ballot box or indirectly by shunning the referendum.
Certainly opportunities to express opposition to the draft constitution had been severely restricted in the run up to the referendum. Activists openly campaigning for a “no” vote had been detained by the authorities for violating the Referendum Act and face punishments of up to 10 years in prison.
So concerned have the authorities been to crackdown on any form of dissent that two eight-year-old girls were charged with “obstructing the referendum process, destroying official documents and destroying common public property” for simply tearing down voter lists posted outside their school that they liked the color of. In such a climate, it is questionable whether voters were really able to make an informed choice on such a crucial decision for the kingdom’s future.
The results of the referendum mark an important step in the military junta’s repeatedly postponed roadmap toward a “fully functioning democracy” and pave the way for a general election to be held next year.
While this should be welcome, the criticisms leveled against the constitution and the referendum process should not be ignored.
For example, the lack of public involvement in the military-drafted constitution was highlighted by pro-democracy activists.
Among the more controversial provisions is one that sets forth an upper senate entirely appointed by the military junta.
Given that the referendum also saw the approval of a proposal for the senate to have a role in appointing the next prime minister, there are fears that the military junta will thus be able to ensure its preferred candidate occupies Government House.
Previously only an elected member of the lower House of Representatives could hold the office of prime minister.
On the part of ASEAN, there has been mostly silence on the going-ons in one of its founding members.
This may be explained by member-states’ unwillingness to be seen as interfering in the domestic affairs of another; one of the creeds of ASEAN. It may also be explained by the regional grouping’s preference for quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy that seeks not to embarrass its member-states openly.
Certainly the “ASEAN way” was successful when it came to the case of Myanmar and ensuring it implemented its own roadmap toward “disciplined-flourishing democracy”. At the same time, it may also demonstrate sensitivity and understanding of the unique challenges facing Thailand.
The kingdom is sharply polarized between the so-called “Red Shirts” and “Yellow Shirts”, had been beset by violent political instability before the military’s intervention and still faces continued angst over its future given the poor health of its revered king.
Nevertheless, Thailand, along with the other nine member-states of ASEAN, is signatory to the Bali Concord II, which was adopted under Indonesia’s chairmanship of the regional grouping in 2003. Considered both historic and significant, the Bali Concord II commits ASEAN to a “just, democratic and harmonious” community.
At the time, the Bali Concord II was widely applauded for breaking the long-held taboo over the use of the term “democracy”, let alone the subject of “democracy”, in the lexicon of ASEAN.
The fact is that a decade since the Concord’s adoption, it is highly questionable that one of ASEAN’s founding members is now under the control of a military junta that has forced through a military-drafted constitution with no civilian input, and where there was a crackdown on public debate or activities interpreted as dissent against the referendum process.
ASEAN must not turn a blind eye to what is happening in Thailand and should take steps to remind the military junta of its obligations and responsibilities to the Bali Concord II.
One concrete way of doing this would be to put the situation in Thailand on the regional agenda in a similar way that political developments in Myanmar regularly featured under dedicated paragraphs in the various ASEAN Chair’s Statements and Joint Communiqués of ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meetings over the years.
ASEAN should start by following up on the short statement that was issued by the ASEAN leaders in December 2013 that called “on all parties concerned to resolve the current situation through dialogue and consultations in a peaceful and democratic manner”.
An updated statement would help keep the spotlight on the military junta and put some pressure on Thailand to uphold its promise.
Given that ASEAN’s credibility is in question over its handling of the South China Sea disputes, it cannot afford to give its critics further ammunition by failing the people of one of its founding members.
The writer A.Ibrahim Almuttaqi heads the ASEAN Studies Program at The Habibie Center in Jakarta.