Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Thailand’s constitutional reform in changing times

When Thailand’s royalist-military junta appointed a panel to draft the new Thai constitution following the September 2006 coup, the idea was to ‘firewall’ the document from any changes the regime’s enemies might try to impose in the future.

One of these firewalls was Article 291, which lays down regulations designed to stymie such attempts. The Pheu Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra, following its overwhelming election victory in 2011, is now proposing to reform Article 291 in preparation for major changes to the constitution, or perhaps even the redrafting of a new constitution altogether.

The 2007 constitution was designed by its royalist drafters principally to limit the power of executive government, which threatened the control of the royalist establishment over Thailand’s political system. The success of Thaksin Shinawatra’s first party, Thai Rak Thai, was due in part to its skill in exploiting the opportunities created by the 1997 constitution — which ironically had been designed to enhance the power and efficiency of the executive and bring an end to the fractious, ever-changing coalitions which had inhibited effective government. The 1997 constitution worked ‘too well’ in the eyes of the royalist establishment. It led to what critics of Thaksin’s electoral popularity would characterise as a ‘dictatorship of the parliament’ or the ‘Thaksin regime’.

Since he was identified as a threat every effort was made to destroy Thaksin as a political phenomenon, but his electoral base remained loyal. The essential problem the royalists faced remained unresolved: if an election was held, a Thaksin-backed party would consistently win at least half the seats in parliament, as has happened in five consecutive elections since 2000. So other means had to be used to change government. The military coup in September 2006, and the ‘judicial coup’ in December 2008 following the seizure of Bangkok’s international and domestic airports by the hyper-royalist ‘People’s Alliance for Democracy’, succeeded in overthrowing Thaksin-led governments. But this overthrow came at the cost of intense political polarisation and, most significantly, the politicisation of the monarchy.

The turning point came in April-May 2010 as troops killed almost one hundred red shirt protestors under the orders of Thailand’s Democrat-led government — effectively the parliamentary arm of the royalist establishment. While the killings ended the month-long occupation of central Bangkok by the red shirts, they also sparked the unprecedented growth and radicalisation of anti-monarchy and even republican sentiment.

The acute danger this posed to the monarchy — and the political and economic order it underwrites — appears to have been enough to bring the royalists to the table. It was widely rumoured that a deal was struck in early 2011 between Thaksin and the Palace to allow a Thaksin-backed party to form government without interference by the military or judiciary, in return for a tacit pledge that Thaksin would end anti-monarchy activism by forces aligned with him.

Since then, despite enormous pressure on the government during the disastrous floods in late 2011, the Pheu Thai government has been allowed to govern largely free of the destabilisation that was unleashed on Thaksin-backed governments in 2005-06 and 2008. In return, the Pheu Thai government has cracked down on anti-monarchy activity, refused to back the campaign to amend the lèse-majesté law, declined to intervene in several high-profile lèse-majesté cases, and has even shown its ‘good faith’ by leaving dozens of red shirt supporters to languish in prison on charges arising out of the 2010 violence. The public appearance at a recent official government function by Privy Council Chairman Prem Tinsulanonda, regarded as the king’s representative, has been interpreted as signifying the monarchy’s blessing for the government — for now.

The deal between Thaksin’s camp and the royalist establishment is an alliance of convenience. The royalists know that if another Thaksin-aligned government were overthrown by a coup or otherwise, the ramifications for the monarchy would be dire. And without a functional relationship with the monarchy and its military guardians, Pheu Thai would be unable to implement its agenda.

Yet the issues of constitutional reform, the proposal to offer an amnesty to those charged with offences related to the political conflict between 2006 and 2010, and above all the prospect of Thaksin’s return to Thailand will put enormous pressure on this deal. And looming in the background is the uncertainty regarding the royal succession. Without the unifying figure of the current king — such as it has been constructed through massive propaganda, military dictatorship and the lèse-majesté law for over five decades — the royalist-military political order that has controlled Thailand since the 1950s is unlikely to survive. All sides are trying to place themselves in the most advantageous position for the struggle that will ensue when the succession takes place — as it must — in the near future.

By Patrick Jory Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the University of Queensland.East Asia Forum

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