Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit, aka “Ake”, the billionaire leader of Thailand’s newest oligarch-owned and operated political vehicle, Future Forward Party, presents himself as an aggressively masculine opponent of military dictatorship. Like most Thai liberals who hail from the upper reaches of Thailand’s highly stratified society, he conflates “democracy” with the writing of constitutions and the staging of elections and little else.
In a recent interview he made it clear that his priority in power would be “dismantling the senate appointment system, the 20-year strategy and other legacies of the military” and that he would happily cooperate with any other political party willing to sign on to this agenda.
It goes without saying that he promises to rewrite the constitution as one of his first steps toward undoing the evil wrought by Prayuth and the NCPO. In the 86 years since the military-civil coalition known as Khana Ratsadon or “People’s Party” very politely and half-heartedly staged the bloodless coup that ostensibly made Thailand into the constitutional monarchy it is today, Thais have lived under 21 constitutions, which is roughly the same number of general elections that have been held during the same period (23?). Put another way, Thailand has new constitutions more frequently than many democracies have elections. So, when a billionaire promises a new constitution, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are faced with Change You Can Believe In™.
If we take the promise to erase the legacy of the NCPO seriously we only have to revisit the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra to see how Thai democracy was flourishing before Big Joke and Big Brother Tuu “stole” it from the Shins.
Under Yingluck, neither the military nor, ultimately, the police were available to enforce order in Bangkok while the proto-fascist PDRC staged their “Shutdown Bangkok” in order to induce the military to stage a coup. Three years earlier, when the country was devastated by floods that cost the country an estimated 40-50 billion dollars in damages and lost production, the Governor of Bangkok resisted the orders of the national government to sacrifice parts of Bangkok in order to lessen the suffering of people upcountry, and the military went out of its way to set up its own rescue operations, successfully portraying the Yingluck administration as incompetent and unconcerned with the well-being of ordinary Thais. This insubordination and the accompanying PR campaign went a long way to restoring the image of the military that had been tarnished by the 2006 coup and subsequent ham-fisted governing record that led to a quick return to a Shinawatra-led government in 2008.
It is normal in Thailand that the writ of the national government does not run into all the nooks and crannies of what is essentially a semi-lawless society, but the brazen disregard for parliamentary authority that was demonstrated from day one by many branches of government, including of course the military, means that the notion of returning to “pre-coup democracy” sounds much better as rhetoric than it might actually manifest in reality.
If it is objected that “pre-coup democracy” is better understood as referring to the good old days when Thailand was still a “ beacon of democracy in the region“, usually meaning from the late 90s to the tragic return to authoritarian rule in 2006, it should be remembered that in those halcyon times, somewhere between 1300 and 2700 Thai citizens were extrajudicially executed under the orders and supervision of the popular Prime Minister of the time, an early instance of SE Asia’s version of the ever-popular War on Drugs that has vaulted Roderigo Duterte to “evil-demon-threatens-democracy” status in “international media”, even while said demon maintains popularity and trust levels with the Philippine people not seen since the People Power Revolution chased Ferdinand Marcos et famille to Hawaii.
Press freedoms in the “Beacon of Democracy” were under intense pressure from Thaksin’s administration; human rights defenders were disappeared and lost their lives; police corruption flourished; Muslims were murdered in military “police actions” that kick-started an intensification of the southern insurgency; Bangkok capitalists in bed with Shin Corp were experiencing the thrill of genuine and highly profitable corporate governance under a CEO PM: and all of this was taking place under the aegis of the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997, a temporary document much celebrated for its theoretical improvements in Thai governance that nevertheless was subverted as resolutely as all Thai Constitutions have been so that whoever happened to hold power at the time could reap the benefits thereof.
It should also be pointed out that, like many elite liberals in Thailand, “Ake” makes much of the “anachronism” of the appointed Senate. It is hard to know what to make of this sort of historical illiteracy. The Thai parliament has swung back and forth- between a royally-appointed senate in the context of a bicameral legislature and a unicameral legislature with no senate at all- regularly and frequently since the first senate was appointed in 1947. There has been precisely one all-elected senate in Thai history- the one elected in 2000 under the provisions of the ’97 Constitution, which forbade senators from membership in political parties.
As with everything Thai elite liberals touch, the ’97 constitution was designed to keep “democratic politics” as far away from real power as possible, hence the non-affiliated status of candidates for the Senate and the similarly intended insistence that Cabinet appointees not be sitting members of parliament. The result of the senate elections in 2000 was as predictable as rain in October. A Nation Weekend headline before the election, commenting on the affiliations of the non-affiliated candidates, renamed the upcoming senate The Assembly of Siblings and Husbands and Wives (sapha phi-nong sapha phua-mia).
If a political party cannot field candidates for an elected senate, then surely individual party members can put forward their brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and children, all of whom will then be indirectly funded and supported by the political party they are not affiliated with. A post-election article in Thai Post was headlined “A Bad Joke! An Assembly of Slaves” and went on to talk about the irony of chao pho (godfathers) and the children and wives of MPs delegated to reform and constrain their husbands and fathers in parliament.
Within two years of the establishment of the first elected senate in Thai history, it was evident to all and sundry that it was functioning as yet one more wing of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai juggernaut. So whether or not an appointed senate is an anachronism, an elected one is surely not a surefire road to democratic heaven in the context of actual-existing Thai politics.
That is the real Thai constitution of course, but don’t tell that to Thai liberals- they and their families are the beneficiaries of that history of corruption and so do not appreciate having it highlighted by the light shone from another sort of “beacon” altogether.