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Thailand After Referendum: Scenarios and Prospects

 

“Thailand After Referendum: Scenarios and Prospects”

 Wednesday, 21st September 2016

 

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Video : Thailand After Referendum: Scenarios and Prospects

Thailand After Referendum: Scenarios and Prospects Part 1/3 : https://youtu.be/rsK6xepDUnc

Thailand After Referendum: Scenarios and Prospects Part 2/3 : https://youtu.be/ZWsdWQL1B1o

Thailand After Referendum: Scenarios and Prospects Part 3/3 : https://youtu.be/AZ-7QzhQAEg

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Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana

Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Prof. Dr. Supachai Yavaprabhas

Constitution Drafting Commission(CDC)

Former Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University,

Principal Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister  and Minister of Defence

 Assist. Prof. Dr. Pandit Chanrochanakit

Lecturer, Department of Government

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Prof. Dr. Suchit Bunbongkarn

ISIS Senior Professorial Fellow

Former Constitution Drafter

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

Moderator: 

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Director of ISIS Thailand

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

 

 

OPENING REMARKS: Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ake Tangsupvattana

Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

 

It has been two years since the ISIS Thailand forum on ‘Reforming Post-Coup Thai Politics: Issues, Priorities and Challenges’. Two years later, the next draft Constitution was accepted in a referendum on 7 August, 2016.

In this context, there may be more space to promote public understanding and conversation that is constructive and beneficial to Thai society by focusing on Thai political prospects. Without constructive forums that contribute to broad exchanges of views and ideas, it may be difficult to promote longer-term political development and stability in Thailand.

Firstly, at the socio-political level, Thailand has had many Constitutions. Can this new Constitution bring about political development and political stability in Thailand? Essentially, can these newly designed political structures and regulations shape political behaviour of Thai people?

Secondly, the question is about political regime change. In the immediate future, which way is going to be the direction of Thai political development? Will it be more democratic or with there be de-democratization towards a semi-democratic regime?

Thirdly, the question is on the institutional checks and balances between elected representative and independent regulatory bodies for deterring corruption. At the same time, will these regulatory bodies have an excessive role, with no accountability to popular vote?

 

Prof. Dr. Supachai Yavaprabhas

Constitution Drafting Commission(CDC)

Former Dean, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

 

What is going on now, and what will happen next?

The Constitution now needs to be amended following the referendum. It has been submitted to the Constitutional Court; decision on that amendment is still being considered. If there are no further amendments, the Constitution may be submitted to the Prime Minister and promulgated around the end of October or the beginning of November 2016. 

After the referendum was passed, independent organisations concerned about the Constitution draft were invited to provide feedback.  The first organisation to submit a draft to was the Human Rights Commission, and feedback from the HRC has been taken on board.

On the September 28, 2016, there will be a Public Forum in which the Election Commission will make a presentation on their recommendations for draft bills on elections. Political parties, key interest and civil society groups, and others concerned are invited to listen and make comment. The National Reform Steering Council has also been invited to give their feedback on the draft law of political parties.

Political polling has also been used to get some ideas and views from the people on specific issues, for example, on the issue of enforcing membership fees for political parties. This is a common practise in some countries like the United Kingdom, but it may not be acceptable in Thailand.

According to the roadmap, after the referendum there are at least 59 bills that have to be finished by the end of the year. Two bills of most importance are the draft bills on National Strategy and National Reform, which have to be done within four months. The law on National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission must be finalised within six months. However, these laws are not in the purview of the Constitution Drafting Committee, but other for other committees. If these bills and others, including those for environmental and health impact assessment, national finance and promotion of anti-corruption mechanisms, are not ready within the time allocated, the head of the organisations responsible must be removed. One area that the CDC is particularly concerned about is the law on education – the new Constitution has put forward that there must be a foundation to support those in need so that they can get access to quality education. The law on educational reform has to be completed within two years.

For this Constitution to succeed, and for the process to be smooth and efficient, politicians and the public need to learn at the same time, otherwise there will be no way to monitor what is going on. This kind of process is quite delicate and tricky; if we do not do it right at the beginning, it will be very difficult to correct later. That is why there are public forums, opinion polls and work with universities to make sure there is transparency and that a wide-range of views are included.

 

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Panitan Wattanayagorn

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University,

Principal Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister  and Minister of Defence

 

When Thailand held the referendum on August 7, there were four possible outcomes for the vote. First, that there would be a landslide against both questions. Second, a slight but marginal rejection. These first two scenarios were predicted by most scholars, journalists and embassies. Third, that the referendum would pass by a very small margin – this was predicted by many government officers. And fourth, that it would pass by a significant margin – very few predicted correctly that this would ultimately be the outcome.

What went wrong, what led so many to predict incorrectly on those first three scenarios? Many think that there was something sinister going on, such as fraud or mistakes in counting the votes. Some blame the military that there was no free political space to debate the issues, or that the electorate was ill-informed. However, these arguments are countered in four key points as outlined by Dr. Thitinan in a Straits Times article. First, the election was not free and fair, but people know enough to go to the poll. Second, the vote was not just a vote for the Constitution, but a vote on the anti-corruption efforts undertaken by the government. Third, that people want an election roadmap sooner rather than later. And finally, the election results show that people are ready for mutual accommodation, compromise and mechanisms to transition to democracy.

The Prime Minister talked about bringing a new equilibrium, to bring back mutual accommodation and to put Thailand back on track. There are four key areas for the government to follow from here.  

1) The government needs to keep the bureaucracy alert, clean, functional and responsive. The government is trying to make the bureaucracy more effective, and more changes are coming through new legislation.

2) Economic growth. Thailand 4.0 is a big commitment from the government – we need to move into the new area of productivity, and find ways to counter the fact that nearly 50% of the population is in agricultural-based Thailand 1.0 or 2.0. Economic reforms need to be put in place, but also there will be new regulations in areas dealing with agricultural problems, land use and drought. There will also need to be economic reform to underpin the shift to Thailand 4.0.

3) Managing the political space. The election campaign has already begun. Those who are connected to political parties are on the ground, they are campaigning, and getting ready to run the next election already. This is a survival issue for them. Underground, there are a lot of negotiations going on to prepare the election.

4) Thailand must engage with the international community. The government must work on meeting its Sustainable Development Goals by linking it with Thailand’s own Sufficiency Economy development concepts. This will be pushed at the G-77 and the ACD. 

In the end, all of this must be placed in the national strategy and implemented by the government, civil society, the people on the ground and the international community.

 

MODERATOR: After the referendum, do you think that the NCPO is a little bit more confident about opening up political space?

PANITAN: I think so. I think moving some cases out from the military courts is a good step, for example. If the people are relaxed, then the government relaxes. If the people are fighting, then we have to respond. We still have to engage with the people who are passionate about their celebrity and political leaders but are not yet prepared to compromise.

 

MODERATOR: Do you think that the government is anticipating more activities with the major powers?

PANITAN: Yes, I think this has happened already. I think that this latest invitation to the Prime Minister from President Obama is reflective of Thailand’s commitment to working with the United States.

 

Assist. Prof. Dr. Pandit Chanrochanakit

Lecturer, Department of Government

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

 

This year is the fortieth anniversary of the October 6, 1976 massacre at Thammasat University. A couple of days ago, only seven news agencies covered a memorial event for the massacre, while in contrast, 17 agencies went to observed the water monitor removal at Lumpini Park. This is indicative of the social and historical forces (and short memories) we are encountering in Thailand.

In 1976, the junta at the time killed more than 46 people. In 1991 there was a coup d’état and in 1992 bloodshed followed, and in 2010 during the Red Shirt protests, the biggest crackdown with the most mortalities occurred in Bangkok. The country has long been divided; ongoing debates and discussion about the best way forward should also have our collective history and the consequences of political polarisation in mind.

The outcome of the referendum shows that many Thais support the 20th Constitution – but who can guarantee that this will be the last one? Many people are simply looking forward to a civil government rather than a military junta, however, that is still more than 18 months away.

The legacy of the Prayuth government has seen some progress in terms of human rights and human trafficking, the project of reconciliation has a long way to go.

1) Cases on human rights are still stuck in military courts and many civil rights activists are still under monitor of the government and fighting for their right to speak. In terms of reconciliation, we can leave no one behind.

2) The rule of the junta has been marked by a lack of accountability, and after the Constitution has been promulgated this will not change. Mega-projects initiated under the government have no accountability.

3) The future Constitution will be almost impossible to be amended. Based on a review of the fate of the previous 18 Constitutions, this latest one will also likely lead to a dead-end.

4) Political parties’ activities have stagnated. Governments have lifted many of their restrictions on civil activists, but political parties have not been active. There have been many rumours floating around about whether the junta will supress the powers and freedoms of political parties, especially Pheu Thai and Democrat Parties. This creates a sense of uncertainty for the future of Thai politics.

After the election, we will have a Constitution which will make a multi-party government. This might bring us back to the 1980s where Thailand had a quasi-democratic government. Post-Prayuth, we may risk returning to the past; a semi-democratic system with no civil society.

 

MODERATOR: The rules are now written that it might not be so hard for an independent body such as the Constitutional Court to unseat the government, by implication which means that after the election you will need to have some kind of military supported or military aligned elected government in order to survive, otherwise, it will be very fragile. The future is pretty clear: we will have an elected semi-democratic coalition government supervised by the military with some politicians alongside.    

 

Prof. Dr. Suchit Bunbongkarn

ISIS Senior Professorial Fellow

Former Constitution Drafter

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University

 

In the near future, our politics will be quite uncertain. Once the referendum has been passed, the number of uncertainties has increased. Many people are interested in finding out who will be the next Prime Minister, and which party will win the next election in 2017/18. Will the military still have power? What will happen to the NCPO?

The two most important questions, however, are ‘will corruption be eliminated from our political scene,’ and ‘will political divisiveness no longer exist?’ These will depend on whether reconciliation, political reform, bureaucratic reform, criminal justice system reform efforts are successful in order to safeguard the freedom of the people and rule of law. The people had high hopes that the coup would be able to resolve these problems – meeting these high hopes is quite difficult for the government.

What might happen in the next few years from now? The next Prime Minister might be General Prayuth Chan-ocha, but he will not run in the election, nor will he set up a political party – this is why people look to the Prem Model for a precedent (although the political and social context from the 1980s has changed dramatically, so the Prem Model may not have the same positive impact now.) Prayuth’s chance of maintaining a political role will be enhanced by the fact that the Thai party system will remain fragile. Neither of the two or three major parties will get a majority of seats in the Lower House – there is a deep split between major figures in the Democrat Party, and Pheu Thai are in a leadership crisis with Yingluck and Thaksin both facing severe legal problems. No parties in the lower house can produce leadership good enough to attract enough votes to form government – this gives Prayuth a good chance to become Prime Minister.

One of the problems being an unelected Prime Minister would be the same as that faced by General Prem – the problem of getting enough support in the Lower House to pass bills. In this case, Prayuth would need to have quite a lot of solid support for major bills, otherwise like Prem, he will have to dissolve the House and hold regular elections. He therefore needs to have support from a number of parties in the Lower House. Some parties are now reportedly working closely with the staff of the two generals to try to secure seats in the new Cabinet for their political support. In Thai politics, it is always working behind the scene!

Will corruption be less in the next government? This requires a follow-up question – will there be a number of new faces in Thai politics? If there is a good number of new faces, hopefully the corruption practises will be reduced. These people will be more principled and less corrupt in their behaviour. But don’t forget, the old faces continue to be in power in many constituencies, and they know how to manipulate their political positions.

Will political polarisation no longer exist? No it is still there. Looking at result of the referendum; the north-east is still a stronghold for those who are against the military, and a stronghold for Thaksin and his colleagues (despite a growing number of defections).

In the first five years, although there will still be divisiveness, it will be less politically violent in Thailand. Political stability will be maintained for the medium term, which will be good for the country to move forward. If the government tries to be more accountable, less corrupt, progressive enough to follow the so-called national strategy and in accordance with the national reform program, then Thai democracy will have a bright future. We will need to tolerate being under a Prem-style semi-democracy, but we do not want a repeat of the turmoil that ensued after General Prem stepped down.

 

Question and Answer

 

PUBLIC QUESTION: This government sees itself as being benevolent and enlightened. What is so unique about these people? On the economic side they are listening to technocrats, but where is the vision coming from? Also, is Prem directing things in anyway?

 

SUCHIT: In the 1980s, civil society organisations were rather weak and political parties fragile. We didn’t have any political party large enough to win a majority. This is how General Prem and the military were able to dominate. At that time, the country needed some sort of stability – the military was able to provide the necessary leadership for that stability.

The characteristic of General Prem was that he is clean-handed, soft-spoken and quite humble. He knew how to run the country, but sought economic advice from technocrats and experts.

PANITAN: The Thai society have accumulated enough experience to make the right decision in many ways. Who are we to tell that they don’t know about Constitutions? They have been through more Constitutions than most countries. Who are we to tell them how to handle the military? They have pushed the military in-and-out more than a few times.

This is the same as the military leaders – they have been part of the political and legal processes in Thailand for many years. They have experience and expertise in these issues. The military leaders and groups of leaders have experience dealing with crises, they have observed political party leaders, and have been involved deeply in decision making. In Thailand, unlike in other countries, these political leaders have been insiders for the last decade.

 

PUBLIC QUESTION: We are seeing some stability, but is it superficial or a false dawn? After the referendum, is this Thailand’s chance to move on, bridge the divide?

 

SUCHIT: Thailand is much more complex than in the Prem era. We also do not have a middle class with a homogenous view. Diversity in political beliefs is becoming increasingly obvious. In the last three or four decades, our political core value is still conservatism. But now there is also a whole range of spectrum of political belief, from far-right conservatism all the way through to very progressive liberals. This seems to be the nature of a more-or-less politically mature society. We cannot overlook these various views – the point is how can we reconcile these people within a political system? Gradual change and gradual economic, social and political reform can accommodate these people.

PANDIT: The growth of a new rural middle-class has started to challenge the concept of vote-buying and electoral fraud. What we need to look forward to in the future is a more effective government with free and open participation from all sides.

SUPACHAI: During the drafting of the Constitution, I had a chance to visit different places and listen to different voices. I thought to myself that I know Thai society, but after having visited various provinces and communities throughout the country, I realised that I know very little about my own country. In the next 10 months, my job as a member of the CDC is to draft the Organic Laws, to try our best to listen to these various voices and make sure that their interests are preserved in these laws.

 

 


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