In August, a new Thai constitution was introduced for the 18th time in 82 years. Jam Kraprayoon assesses the latest incarnation and suggests that although this constitution is similar to its predecessors in many ways it goes much further to secure the power of the new military junta.
Thailand has had twelve coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. While categorised as a constitutional monarchy like Britain, it has been marked by recurring political and constitutional upheaval. Professor Chai-anan Samudavanija labels this continual process the ‘Thai political cycle’. The cycle begins with the suspension of the old constitution through a military coup, often prompted in recent years by a prerogative to reduce corruption, leading to a new constitution being enacted. Elections are held and time passes until a new perceived crisis leads to another military coup and another constitution. This pattern makes distinction between temporary and permanent constitutions largely semantic rather than actual – in Thailand all constitutions are temporary.
Constitutions in Thailand do not normally provide neutral rules to regulate political participation and competition among groups (The 1997 iteration, also known as the ‘People’s Constitution’ proved so far to be an exception rather than the rule). Instead they are tools in maintaining the power of those who write them. The country has had eighteen constitutions in the last eight decades, most promulgated to legitimate the authority exercised by the then-dominant political forces. Accordingly, most post-coup constitutions reflect the interests and intentions of the ruling junta. The 2014 interim constitution drafted by the military junta, the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO), is no exception.
In many ways the 2014 interim constitution is simply another iteration of what has been witnessed before. This can be seen throughout the constitution; Section 6 which calls for the establishment of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), a fully appointed legislative body, has precedent in past constitutions including the more recent 2006 and 1991 post-coup charters. Another recurring article, Section 16, restricts votes of no confidence on the junta-occupied cabinet, which from a legal perspective effectively suspends the parliamentary system. Section 48, which gives amnesty to ‘all those associated’ with the May 22 coup, is another frequent feature of post-coup constitutions. These articles echo basic political and legal needs faced by many past coup-makers in the country, specifically, the need to push through legislation and receive impunity from ‘illegal acts committed before, during, or after [the coup]’.
This interim constitution, however, is also path-breaking in a few substantive respects which reveal how the junta has situated itself within the current Thai political landscape. What is noticeable is the lengths to which the constitution goes to secure absolute power for the NCPO and its Chairman, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, while marginalising the role of former politicians and political parties. While in the recent past post-coup constitutions have specifically targeted the previous opposition, this constitution targets the whole body of elected politicians. Article 44 gives authority to the NCPO Chairman above the executive, legislative and judicial branches – something unprecedented even in Thailand’s long history of military governments. In the past, power was given to the council or invested in the office of the prime minster and could not be exercised without consulting the cabinet. Meanwhile, the NLA has been filled with pro-coup loyalists with specific provisions to bar former elected politicians (Section 8). This configuration facilitated the unanimous vote for General Prayuth to become the current prime minister on August 25th.
The content of the 2014 interim constitution also reveals how strongly the NCPO wish to direct the drafting of the permanent constitution. The two bodies established by the junta to draft and approve the permanent constitution, the National Reform Council (NRC) and the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) respectively, have been structured to give the NCPO the final word without the requirement of a referendum. Sections 27 and 35 serve to set the agenda for the appointed drafters with a particular focus on reducing corruption and limiting the role of politicians and political parties, who are seen by the military as having enabled and profited from widespread abuses of office. These articles are without precedent as well and strongly suggests that the NCPO is looking to remain influential in politics for the long-term.
Ultimately, the immediate consequence of interim constitution is to centralise power in the hands of the military junta and more specifically the NCPO Chairman, General Prayuth. However, it is a mistake to assume that the interim constitution is solely an effort to accumulate power by the General. What seems to be the case is that the NCPO intend to shift the balance of power in Thai politics away from the competitive politicians and political parties who dominated since the beginning of the 21st century back to the civil-military bureaucrats seen in the 1980s. The logic driving the junta and their supporters is the genuine belief that the electoral system produces poor short sighted leaders, and that appointed officials will be less corrupt and more adept at governing the country. Similar claims had been put forward by many previous coup-makers and while Thai elected officials have frequently abused their office, the record of past military leaders and bureaucrats is far from spotless. Also, the very idea of reducing corruption by replacing a dysfunctional system of political accountability with one which allows for unchecked authority ought to be viewed with a critical eye.
What this constitution shows is that while the lengths the military go to achieve their goals is more extreme, the driving motive and actions thus far remain similar to past coups. There is little to suggest any difference in outcome. While doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is known to some as insanity, this may stem from a desperation to secure a favourable government to handle the inevitable royal succession, given that the king is eighty-six and in poor health. Nevertheless, it remains uncertain that the military will have its way despite it making great efforts to ensure that this interim constitution is legally watertight. Any constitution enacted by the NCPO must face the court of public and international opinion, and in this arena the junta has far less control.
Jam Kraprayoon is an intern at the Constitution Unit assisting Professor Meg Russell on researching the policy impacts of Parliament. He is from Bangkok, Thailand and is currently finishing up a BSc in Government at the London School of Economics .