The interim government of Thailand is about to make a spectacle of itself — one that will make brilliantly clear its ideal future society. According to an announcement by the Public Relations Department, a Democracy Festival will usher in the Aug. 19 referendum on the new military-backed constitution.
“Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont will preside over the opening ceremony on August 3 when he will announce a declaration on the development of Thai politics. On this occasion, the Prime Minister, together with the Chairman of the Council for National Security, the Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, the President of the National Legislative Assembly, and the Chairman of the Election Commission of Thailand, will jointly issue the statement, ‘Democratic Development under the Declaration on the Development of Thai Politics.’ Also participating in this event will be members of the diplomatic corps and international organizations, as well as representatives of the public, private and civic sectors.”
The bulletin promises that 2,550 balloons, representing the current year on the Buddhist calendar used by Thailand, will be sent aloft “with a message of democracy.” Displays will “provide visitors with knowledge about Thai history and major events in Thai politics,” and there will even be a debate. On the night of Aug. 5, people nationwide “will join forces in announcing the ‘Declaration on the Development of Thai Politics 2007.'”
Thousands of exhibits to promote the referendum are being sent around the country, and some sort of democracy flag is winding its way back to the capital in time for the ceremonies.
Thus, the return of democracy is to be formally declared by a cabal of serving and retired military officers and senior bureaucrats at an oversized convention center on the outskirts of Bangkok. The national leadership having demonstrated its special concern for the proper development of politics in Thailand, all that now remains is for everyone else to join forces and follow its instructions.
A few people will be co-opted as witnesses at the official event and demonstrate unity through their physical presence. Others may perhaps witness the balloons from afar and thereby get the message.
Writing around a decade ago, leading political scientist Chai-anan Samudavanija observed how Thailand’s military and bureaucracy historically had held exclusive legitimate authority to organize and mobilize large numbers of people. Political parties, by contrast, had been viewed with hostility and warned away from the sorts of activities with which they are ordinarily associated in other countries, such as calling for big meetings and building durable policies through coherent public debate. Laws were introduced to delimit the ability of secular groups to obtain popular support.
“The military’s main strategy was to allow for very limited political participation at the national level,” Chai-anan observed. “For the military, the power of the state and political power were different matters.” The appearance of representative democracy was belied by an amalgam of institutions designed to keep real authority located elsewhere.
However, even as Chai-anan wrote, things were changing rapidly. The military was on the back foot after the downfall of the previous coup leader after bloody protests in the capital during 1992, and growing numbers of civil rights groups, together with conservative liberal forces, managed to push through a charter that they hoped would balance new public demands with the interests of established powerful institutions and persons. The 1997 Constitution was the first to introduce notions of genuine constitutionalism, judicial review and popular involvement in all areas of social and political life in Thailand.
But for the old guard, the government of Thaksin Shinawatra proved to be a sobering lesson in the dangers of someone aspiring to merge political strength with the actual power of state, through blatant use of personal and public capital. His shrewd blending of strategies for control worked in part because of his ability to manipulate the components of the new charter, which had been written with a view to defending human rights and promoting the rule of law, but which for Thaksin were mere implements either to be used for personal advantage or tossed aside.
The former government became a serious threat to people throughout Thailand because it used the weapons of the Constitution to assault the very principles that they had been intended to protect. It became a serious threat to the military not for this reason, but because in doing so it aimed also to displace the established order, and actually stood some chance of success.
To prevent Thaksin — or anyone else like him — from resurfacing, the military has apparently concluded that it is necessary to deny any version of constitutional government that may again open the door to his methods. In short, this means denying any form of genuine constitutionalism at all, as it would necessarily oblige the military and its allies to be answerable to the legislature, not vice versa. So the essence of military-approved democracy is fraudulent constitutionalism. For the army, there is no alternative: the real thing is simply intolerable.
Today in Thailand, everybody is encouraged to make an informed choice on the referendum so long as they all get the same information, and because an informed choice is construed to mean a ‘Yes’ vote.
Everybody is invited to know about their history, so long as it doesn’t include any of the stuff that no one can talk about, such as the systematic killing of farmers’ leaders throughout the mid-1970s. Everybody has a right to protest so long as they stop and go home when told, or will take the blame if things get out of hand. Everybody is entitled to voice their opinion, so long as they can find an outlet for it. And everybody can debate, so long as they do so in the right place, at the right time, with people who know what’s best. In this manner, democracy can be force-fed and tranquility restored, right on schedule.
And if you still don’t believe it, don’t worry. Declaring it can make it so: 2,550 balloons can’t be wrong.
Thailand’s struggle for constitutional survival
(article 2, vol. 6, no. 3, June 2007): http://www.article2.org/pdf/v06n03.pdf
New Mandala on the referendum: http://rspas.anu.edu.au/rmap/newmandala/category/thailand/referendum
Dictators use referendums too: http://ratchasima.net/2007/05/04/dictators-use-referendums-too