This is Not the End of Thai Democracy

Wiboon Boonpattararaksa talks to his son Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, at center, on Aug. 6 at a police station holding cell in Chaiyaphum province. Jatupat was on a hunger strike to protest his arrest for campaigning against the charter. Photo: Thai Lawyer for Human Rights

RetentionA week before the referendum on the junta-favored charter draft, which ended in a decisive victory for a constitution written entirely by junta appointees, I asked a taxi driver how he would vote.

The question was posed out of curiosity, and the driver’s answer made me even more curious. He said he didn’t like military rule, but the economy is bad so he planned to vote in favor of the charter so there would be quick general elections. I thought he was joking. Vote for the constitution of his hated junta? He wasn’t.

Pravit RojanaphrukAfter the Aug. 7 referendum, in which 16.8 million supported the charter versus the 10.5 million who rejected it, it was clear that such a mentality was not isolated, as I interviewed people from the various regions and heard the same anecdotes replayed time and again.

If you think it’s ironic, consider the leader of Thailand’s Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who just days before the referendum denounced the charter draft but said he wanted the junta leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, to stay on to preside over another “better” version. A “Democrat” Party leader publicly supporting a junta leader? Go figure.

Never mind the leader of the Democrat Party, there are many Thais who outright support the junta and continued militarization of Thai society. Many of these people are not even shills, they are dictatorial in mind and heart. Many think it’s best to have stability during the transition of the throne at all cost, never mind if it’s only surface deep, as witnessed by the bombs that killed four Thursday and Friday. Never mind if the price to be paid is the civil liberties of those who do not agree with you.

Then there are the democratic idealists who held a symposium at Thammasat University two days after the referendum calling the whole thing an unacceptable fake. One argued the word “referendum” should not even have been used due to the gagging and arrests of charter opponents in the preceding months under the Referendum Act enacted by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly. They have their point, but how to move forward with their agenda when many in society do not share their idealism or convictions?

I remind them that we live in a society, and that means that while each of us may have our own idealism and preferences on what is good and acceptable – there’s a need to try to accommodate others and find a social contract acceptable to all. That requires compromise on our values that differ from others.

Since the 1932 revolt ended absolute monarchy, Thailand has been alternating in a seemingly never-ending seesaw between conservative and progressive forces. Twelve “successful” coups have been staged since then, an average of one every seven years (not even counting the seven failed coup attempts), and successive juntas have ripped up various constitutions over the past eight decades, making the latest one the 20th “permanent” charter (and probably not the last). The phrase “permanent constitution” is a high example of oxymoron, worthy of pre-dinner stories to elicit laughter from foreigners.

The seesaw struggle will continue, however, as there are at least 10 million Thais who voted down the charter draft. As the military seeks to tighten its grip on power beyond elections through their appointed senate that will play a decisive role in picking the next prime minister, it’s time for pro-democracy Thais to earnestly ask why a substantial demographic supports the junta.

Is it because they’re just dictatorial minded? Are they too hateful and fearful of ousted, fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, whom they perceive as a threat to the monarchy? Is it both and more?

No matter what one makes of the results of the referendum and the continued militarization of Thai society, we also witnessed resistance. Some are in jail right now for campaigning against the junta-sponsored charter.

We are not in a Cold War era where communication is slow; we live in digital age of instant communication and access to information through our social media networks. In this paradigm, resistance against an anachronistic military dictatorship will definitely not be the same. And let’s face it, the mass media today is just not as afraid of Prayuth as they were of Sarit Thanarat back in the 1960s.

The struggle will continue until there exists an unwritten social contract acceptable by most on what Thai society should be. The old and infirm should entertain the possibility they won’t live to see the day an unwritten social contract is achieved. For the young, they should recognize and prepare to carry the torch of liberty, equality and democracy in the decades ahead. I still see hope in the eyes of these youngsters, some of whom have not even finished high school.

The story of the continued democratic struggle goes on, while the players and characters come and go.

This is not the end of Thai democracy.