Editorial: A Referendum is Not Enough

Anti-coup activist Weng Tojirakarn votes in the 2007 referendum, wearing red to signify his opposition to the constitution draft, 19 August 2007.

The junta should organize a referendum that will allow the Thai people to choose between the upcoming 2015 constitution and the 1997 "People’s Constitution."

Junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has suggested that it is still "too early" to discuss whether there will be a referendum on the 2015 charter, which is being drafted by a junta-appointed body.

However, the need for a referendum is so fundamental that it should not be up for discussion at all; without receiving approval from the people, Thailand’s 20th charter will lack all legitimacy and inevitably set the stage for a renewed political crisis. Even some members of the junta’s government have expressed support for the measure.

And yet, the promise of a referendum alone is not enough. The options made available to the people are equally important.

In the referendum for the 2007 charter, which was also drafted by a junta-appointed council, voters were only permitted to accept or decline the document.

This vagueness allowed the military junta at the time to spread fear that the alternative would be worse. Fearing prolonged military rule, many voters reluctantly approved the junta’s charter, not knowing what fate a rejection would bring.

In order to give the Thai people a true choice, the current junta should allow voters to choose between the 2015 charter draft – which is even more regressive than the 2007 constitution – and the 1997 constitution, which was drafted by an elected assembly. 

Hailed as the "People's Constitution," the 1997 charter was the first and only constitution to establish a fully-elected House of Representatives and Senate. In contrast, the draft of the 2015 charter calls for an unelected Senate, harking back to the 1980s, when MPs were elected but tightly controlled by an appointed Senate and unelected Prime Minister. 

The 1997 constitution is not a cure all for Thailand’s political ills. Reforms will still be needed, and reconciliation will be a slow and arduous process. However, the 1997 charter will allow this healing to take place under an elected government that can represent and respond to the demands of the people.

Democracy in Thailand has been repeatedly interrupted by military coups and dictatorships. Every time a charter is dissolved, the institution of democracy is weakened and the notion that electoral results can be overturned by extra-constitutional means is reinforced. The latter belief is the number one obstacle standing in the way of Thailand’s democratic future.

In order to end this cycle of crisis, the next charter must be built to last. Without the support from a majority of Thais, it will only be a matter of time before unrest resurfaces. 

If the junta is genuine in its goal to strengthen Thailand’s democracy, the Thai people must be involved in the process, starting with the constitution.