Today is Constitution Day. To many it means just another day off work despite the fact that for two decades after the 1932 revolt, it was celebrated with a festival that two years later even added a beauty pageant.
A Friday poll claimed that 81.5 percent of its respondents have never read a constitution. If true, they deserve some sympathy. During the 84 years since the end absolute monarchy, Thailand has gone through 19 of them and is about to launch No. 20. Calling each a “permanent constitution” is a joke with a punchline repeated every four years, on average.
This means a typical Bangkok bus is in service longer than the average constitution.
Put simply, so many hours and money have gone into writing and rewriting one charter after another, and I haven’t met anyone who believes the next “permanent constitution,” written by junta-appointed drafters and passed in a less-than-fair referendum, will be the last.
That time – and fat, taxpayer-sourced salaries for the drafters – if put to other endeavors, could easily have gone to building the kind of lasting mega-edifices that would please any dictator, or possibly some schools or hospitals to the benefit of the people.
Thailand needs a constitution, a written charter which serves as a social contract. The problem is, what is supposed to be the venerable “Law of the Land” is crumpled and tossed aside so often and with such disregard it no longer carries and deep meaning to the average citizen.
Many citizens, except maybe law students, politicians, activists or political-beat journalists, feel alienated by the ephemeral nature of Thailand’s permanent constitution to the point where they couldn’t care less. Instead of being a sacred social contract citizens can recite with pride, the Thai constitution is a technical text best left to pundits.
While rewriting our social contract is a seemingly never-ending process, we have neglected to create an unwritten social contract that would be more lasting: democratic culture, respect for the rights and opinion of others and tolerance.
Some may say this is impossible, particularly given that we have diminishing freedoms and democracy, but people can foster a democratic culture by encouraging greater participation and respect for differing political views in their immediate social milieu independent of the larger political context, or what’s written in the latest permanent constitution. Each of us can foster and defend these values in our own ways, no matter how small, and no matter what’s written that authored by the junta.
The culture of queuing is one example of success. Forty or thirty years ago, queuing was not observed in Thailand, but many Thais over the decades have learned to fall in line and wait their turn. The same can be said of littering, or respecting the rights of nonsmokers in public areas. Improvements have been achieved over the past few decades.
We have learned to adopt these new norms, and there’s no reason we cannot create a more democratic Thailand where respect for human rights, tolerance and freedom of expression are deeply ingrained in our culture. It can be achieved if we put in just half the effort and time spent writing one permanent constitution after another.