Military-backed constitution approved: is a civilian government too farfetched?

After the rejection of an initial draft constitution by the government officials in 2015, a referendum on a newly drafted constitution was held this August. The approval of the constitution further cements the military’s power in the country. With the current political scene, it seems apparent that a civilian government will not be possible in the near future. 


The new political landscape taking hold in Thailand

This past summer, Thailand underwent sweeping changes, as Thailand’s military junta won a landslide victory in the constitutional referendum held on August 7th. 61% of voters approved the newly drafted constitution. The voters also agreed to a second amendment which was added at the last minute. The amendment allows the Senate and House of Representatives to appoint a non-elected Prime Minister. However, the voter turnout was only 55%, which shocked the Thai military who expected an 80% turnout. This election is well below the average turnout of the last six general elections, which the pro-Shinawatra political party had consistently won.

Thai Military seizes power

Those that oppose the current Thai military junta are outraged the army did not step down and allow for a civilian government. These voters also believe the Thai military is coercing its way into every authority office. For example, the newly drafted constitution allows the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to select 194 out of the 250 senators in Thailand’s Senate.

Although there is no proof of electoral fraud, many felt the elections were not fair and free. The military junta outlawed any form of campaigning, which significantly hurt the “Vote No” camp. It was almost impossible for the opposition to get their message to the public, as those who tried were either arrested or imprisoned. Due to the military junta’s enforced campaigning blackout and strict media control, most voters were unaware of amendments to the new constitution. At the same time, the NPCO utilised its control of the media outlets to propagate its expected victory in the August referendum.

Thailand’s old social strata

The new constitution is expected to be ratified in a year. When endorsed, it will be Thailand’s 20th constitution in 85 years, which is not surprising given its numerous coups. After the creation of Thailand’s constitutional monarchy in 1932, the military rose to power and became one of the key players in Thai politics. The military worked hand-in-hand with Thailand’s elites – the monarchy, wealthy families and aristocrats. Today, the military is backed by various echelons of the Thai society, but its most influential backers are the upper-class, large Sino-Thai companies, the bureaucracy, judiciaries, university officials and monarchists.

Many believe the current Thai army serves what political scientist Fred Riggs coined ‘the bureaucratic polity, exerting its force throughout Thailand since its rise to power in the 1950s. Accordingly, those classified as members of the bureaucratic polity are often perceived as aids to the King instead of civil servants. Interestingly, the word for bureaucrat in Thai, “kha ratchakan,” literally translates to the king’s servant”.

Thailand’s elites have worked together to ensure the legitimacy of the NCPO through the administrative skills of its members and the armed backing of the Thai military. They have suppressed opposition parties in the past and will continue to do so.

Thailand’s vicious cycle repeating itself

Thailand has had numerous constitutions, so the victors of the coup can consolidate their gains. A constitutional referendum allows the victors to take influential positions in the government and other sectors of society. This ensures their opposition is left with no position of power and hence, is unable to rebel.

This summer has proven to be a rehashing of a recurring cycle in Thailand. A cycle that secures the interests of the Thai elite and military. Thailand’s upper-class civilian population controls its judiciary, administrative and financial backing, while the Thai military provides armed support. Thus, both parties are well represented within Thailand’s political arena.

Thailand’s political stage operates in a vicious cycle of coups and new constitutions. However, when the dust clears, the Thai military and its support base seem to always be the last men standing.