THAILAND GOES to the polls Sunday for a referendum on a new constitution that was written by a committee appointed by the military junta that took power in 2014. The voting should fool no one. The process has not been democratic, nor would the constitution guarantee a working democracy. Whether the document is approved or rejected by voters, Thailand badly needs reconciliation of deep divisions in society over ideology, economics and ethnicity, rifts that have driven the political conflict between “red shirts” and “yellow shirts,” as the polarized factions are known. This constitution is, at best, unlikely to help achieve that reconciliation and, at worst, an invitation for continued military rule.
The referendum itself is a good illustration of how autocrats have cloaked themselves in procedures of democracy in order to cling to power. Instead of brute force, triggering protest at home and criticism abroad, 21st-century autocrats preside over referendums, talk of elections, create fake organizations and charters, and very quietly suffocate anyone who stands in opposition.
In Thailand, the drafting process of the constitution was not open. Criticism of the draft is punishable by imprisonment. There is no formal “no” campaign. On July 22, a 30-day blackout was ordered of Peace TV, a television station loyal to the opposition. A few weeks ago, at a university campus, students were detained by police for releasing balloons into the air inscribed with the words “Campaigning is not wrong.” At least 120 people have been prosecuted for voicing opposition to or criticizing the charter. No international monitors were allowed for the vote. This is a constitution born by undemocratic means.
Nor is the document itself very promising. When the military took over, the parliament was abolished. The draft constitution would reconstitute the lower house of 500 members but change the membership toward proportional representation and away from district elections, in order to reduce the power of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party — allies of the “red shirts” — which has won every general election for the past 15 years. Also, the charter would make the upper house, the Senate, an unelected body.
A second question on the ballot, if approved, would give the unelected Senate a role in picking a prime minister, leaving open the possibility of a general. Although the junta has promised to eventually relinquish power, the constitution looks to be written as a road map for the generals to hold on to their influence for a long time, while enjoying the window dressing of a new constitution.
The options for Thais are not appealing. To vote yes would enshrine an undemocratic constitution and might lead to years of authoritarian rule. To vote no, defeating the charter, could leave the junta in place longer and might lead to a new constitution that is even less promising. Either way, the West must regard this vote for what it is, a Potemkin exercise staged by modern authoritarians, not the genuine process of change that Thailand sorely needs.