Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Thailand - Lost in Transition

Thailand may be the least miserable place on earth, but her history, at least in modern times, is permeated by political anxiety. This weekend's plebiscite on her future, transparent as it may have been, has done nothing to change that

Chiangrai Times:
After years of political dysfunction, violence, corruption and deepening divisions in society, Thais wanted stability. Perhaps they did not think it through, but they saw the constitution – however flawed – as a way out of the quagmire.There’s also the fact that the military government kept a tight lid on debate on the constitution, meaning many may not have realized it was flawed. 
“I believe a big part of the people who accepted the charter truly believe that it can solve corruption problems. Part of the people voted ‘yes’ because of their misunderstanding that once we have a constitution we will have an election and the military will be gone. … It also indicates the distrust for politicians is deep-rooted in Thai society. It also reflects a problematic perspective of the pro-military masses, who turn a blind eye to the corruption in bureaucracy and the armed forces.” 
“Looking cursorily at the comments of and talking to people who voted ‘yes,’ it’s quite clear that they did not dissect the constitution in detail. They looked at the big picture and they accepted the newly designed system (in which) the military, courts and independent (bodies) can check the elected politicians. It is a vote out of anxiety about the future.” 
“We have to accept the reality. The government controlled its opponents … with arrests and stifling of opinions. The fact that we’ve come this far is our best effort despite everything that has happened. But we are good sports, and we hope that peace comes now. The problem is, how are we certain that the country will remain peaceful? We have seen that the military government can use Article 44 to solve its short-term problems, but how is that going to solve our long-term issues?”

Shawn Crispin, The Diplomat:
Thaksin and Yingluck’s inability to get out the “no” vote was particularly notable considering their aligned parties’ domination of all general elections since 2001. In comments to Reuters on August 4, Thaksin characterized the draft charter as a “folly” designed to perpetuate junta rule that, if passed, would result in “a nightmare of contradiction and confusion.” Yingluck likewise bid to stoke anti-charter sentiment in personal Facebook posts and media-geared visits with provincial supporters, but voters in her native northern region still voted resoundingly (58 percent) in favor of the military’s charter. Peua Thai’s northeastern stronghold was the only region to vote (51 percent) down the draft, though by a slimmer margin (63 percent) than mostly rural voters there voted down the earlier constitution in 2007. 
Regardless of voters’ motivation, the credibility of the result is tainted by the junta’s harsh suppression of vote “no” campaigning in the run-up to the vote. Hard curbs on free expression, imposed in a draconian Referendum Act that carried potential 10-year prison sentences for misrepresenting the draft, criticizing its content, or disrupting the vote, resulted in the arrest of at least 120 people, according to Human Rights Watch, a rights group. In June, the United Nations expressed its concerns about the restrictions and later released a follow-up to counter comments apparently made by the Thai foreign ministry to the local press that said the U.N. was notconcerned. 
With those restrictions in place, including a junta-enforced ban against the Peua Thai-aligned “Red Shirt” activist group from establishing electoral fraud monitoring centers across the country, there was no indication of systematic irregularities on polling day. The Asian Network for Free Elections, or ANFREL, an independent election monitoring body, said in a Twitter post soon after the polls closed on Sunday that the vote had been “relatively smooth” and that poll booth staff had performed “professionally.” Both Peua Thai and the UDD accepted the result as legitimate, defusing what some viewed as a potential source of instability if they had challenged it as rigged. (Abhisit said he also accepted the people’s will.)

"There will be no protest movement," said Sabina Shah, a former local leader of "red-shirt" Shinawatra supporters in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen. "We'll wait for the election. It will inevitably be the Puea Thai Party, or whatever they become, winning," she said, referring to the political party that carried Yingluck Shinawatra to power in a landslide in 2011.

Thaksin and his allies have won every election since 2001, but have been removed from power either by the courts or in coups during a decade of political turmoil pitting the Shinawatras against the military-royalist establishment.
But even if Shinawatra allies win the 2017 election, they will find it difficult to scrap the new charter or reverse the military's power over future elected governments. "We are not going to oppose this constitution but we are certain it will lead to trouble," Thanawut Wichaidit, spokesman for the red-shirt United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship group told Reuters.

Nirmal Ghosh, Straits Times:
Whether this divide can be addressed under what academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak has called "military-conceived" custodial "democracy" is not very likely. The current military-appointed government has made noises about addressing inequality in Thai society - but merely addressing economic inequality, even if that succeeds (and it will take time), is not enough; it is aspirational rights that need to be addressed. 
Most political insiders on the eve of the election, believed the draft constitution would be narrowly rejected; that it was not has been explained as a desire by Thais for forward movement of any kind towards an election, a lack of information about the implications of the constitution, or simply apathy; some 45 per cent of registered voters did not vote. 
That there is also underlying anxiety over the royal transition - King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 88, hospitalised and increasingly frail - would undoubtedly have been a factor as well. Many Thais, privately at least given the constraints on any discussion about the monarchy, fear potential chaos at the passing of a King who for over six decades has been seen as the ultimate moral authority and last resort in a still hierarchical, even feudal society. That the military is concerned is no secret; regime leaders and spokesmen have continually emphasised that Thailand is going through a sensitive transition which foreigners - a term usually used for western countries and commentators - may not fully grasp. From the army's point of view the monarchy in Thailand is intrinsic to national security.

The signs are that the business community, with an interest in stability and policy continuity, is not too fazed by the result of the referendum. Thailand's political conflict is likely to remain muted for the foreseeable future.

Speaking to The Straits Times on the eve of the referendum, a senior political figure who asked not to be named, said "If the constitution passes we will be back to where we were almost 40 years ago. And we will stay in the same place for another 20 years.''
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