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Thai Constitutional Crisis: The military coup, referendum and aftershocks

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There is yet another constitution for Thailand. In the last 84 years, Thailand has seen 19 coups and its 20th constitution. The new military drafted constitution boils down to a document that gives the junta leaders a final say over the political future of the nation. And, as a matter of fact, the same was passed in a referendum with over 60% support.

Critics of the movement and the charter have raised pertinent questions, such as, why would an electorate, denied any say over who governs them since a coup that happened two years ago, overwhelmingly vote to approve a charter which offers them only a semi-democracy? A lot of human rights groups have condemned this charter, for it further entrenches the rule of military, sidelining the true principles of democracy. Further, critics have voiced their concerns about the powers afforded to the unelected senate to choose a potentially unelected prime minister.

Of the possible reasons pointed out, the major factors cited for this result include the repressive climate preceding the referendum, ban on the campaigning, and implicating activists who tried criticizing the constitution. One of the most obvious conclusions of this move is that the Thais remained ill-informed of the arguments of the opposition. With negligible knowledge of the flaws and merits of the charter and 279 complicated articles to read through, the fairness of the referendum can only be based on conjectures and surmises.

The first task of the constitutional drafting committee, that has been set up, is to draw up the so called “organic laws”, which shall govern the new political system. While there is no surety around the nature of these laws, the established political parties fear that these leads would ensure further fragmentation of these political parties into smaller parts. It has been argued that one of the most obvious losers of the entire move is the party of the ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Phuea Thai, which has won every election since 2001. While the new system will cost 10-20% of the seats to the party it has won in the recent past, Ms. Yingluck, the party’s best vote-winner has been banned from the office for a term of five years, by the current junta.

Even if the party could be reformed, and manages to win a plurality of the votes, the other parties could be organized into a military movement, and into a coalition that denies it a mandate. Overshadowing all of these developments, is the poor health of the ageing King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The monarchy has stood out as one of the unifying elements of Thai society, with the king serving as the figurehead commander of the Thai armed forces. The king’s frail health has forced the military’s hand, with the military eyeing to protect its long term interests within the Thai society. Thus, this constitution is an attempt to do just that, no matter who succeeds the king. The matter of Crown Property Bureu, a royal trust with an estimated $53 billion in assets, has also attracted a lot of eyes. Outspoken and confrontational prime ministers such as the ones in the past would impede the utilization of this royal fund much harder.

Concluding, it can be argued that the referendum has provided Thailand some time and stability in the short run, but if “Thai history is an indication to go by, no one should get too comfortable”.

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