Opinion: Thailand’s Short Shelf Life Constitutions

Pro-democracy demonstrators hold a copy of a plaque marking Thailand's transition to democracy during a protest outside the Parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Photo: Sakchai Lalit / AP

December 10 is the Thai Constitution Day but there’s little celebrations in a country that saw 19 constitutions come and go and the current 20th grapple with an attempt to be rewritten.

In the first two decades following the 1932 revolt and the first charter promulgated in the same year, the day was celebrated with great pageantries and national pride. Not that I have seen it since I was not yet born but one can read about it in some history texts or gauge at some of the old black and white photos that still survive.

Those visiting vintage flea markets will occasionally chance upon framed mirrors with images of the late king, Rama IX, printed with his head below an image of the constitution and Thai flags and a reminder of the place charter once occupied. There are also some vintage memorabilias with images of Thai constitution on a traditional tray proudly used by a number of companies in the past as their trademark. Those who fought against and defeated the royalist Bovoradej counter revolutions in 1933 were also awarded a medal by the Thai state back then and the copper medal featuring the image of the constitution on one side is now rarely seen.


And eventually, just a few years ago, the memorial marking the defense of the charter against the Bovoradej rebellion in a failed attempt to restore absolute monarchy in Bangkhaen district of Bangkok was ‘mysteriously’ removed in the dead of the night.

Those were the days and not today. Today, for the vast majority of Thais, Dec 10 is simply just another public holiday. Here in Thailand, unlike the United States, you will not hear any Thai passionately cite any article of the Thai constitution. Unlike military leaders in the United States and other democratic societies and their leaders who swore to defend the constitution, some Thai generals with dictatorial inclinations, including junta leader Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha in 2014, played a leading role in annulling the constitutions through successive military coups.

Thus we are now settled with the 20th constitution of Thailand in less than nine decades since the first. That means the average shelf life of each Thai constitution is less than five years, less than the warranty offered by some Swiss watch makers – which is five. Thailand is among the top nations when it comes to the disposable nature it treats its charter.

The Dominican Republic has had 39 charters and the most in the world since its independence in 1844. To be pedantic, it means each Domonican charter’s average shelve life is even slightly longer than Thailand’s at four and a half years versus four and just less and a half year for Thailand.

Realists, and there is at least one within the rank of those appointed by the now-defunct junta to draft the current 2017 charter, admits to me in private that he doesn’t think the 20th charter would be the last. Well, the current charter is nearly four years old now since it was promulgated on April 6, 2017. So I guess it’s a countdown now if you believe in statistics.

Nevertheless, no matter how unhappy one may be about the current junta-selected senators that could vote for a new PM and hope for a new charter ASAP, it’s unrealistic to expect a ‘permanent’ constitution to be promulgated anytime soon. That’s chiefly because Thai society has yet to strike a consensus on whether to strictly keep soldiers in the barracks. Coup supporters will say a military coup functions like a political-crisis cut-out fuse – to switch off corrupt politicians, real or imagined, or for the elites to get rid of governments that do not conform to their agenda.

Another key disagreement is the relationship between the monarchy and its people, should the monarchy be above criticism as basically ensured by the lese majeste law? Article 6 of the charter states: “The king is held in a position of reverence. No one shall violate, accuse or take legal action against the king through any means.” This is in contrast with the demands made by the youth-led monarchy-reform movement which includes the abolishment of the lese majeste law.

With no social contract of these two issues, it will be a while before we get to a point of consensus. Until then, any charter is ephemeral and fragile.

To make the matter more controversial, the memories of the role of the Promoters who ended absolute monarchy and brought about the first constitution has been downplayed for decades now with Dec 10 turning into a day where government leaders only pay respect to the Rama VII who bestowed the first charter after the 1932 revolt.


For the meantime, those unpassionate about the state of the Thai constitution, or constitutions, can still relish in the fact that at least Dec 10 is still a public holiday.

Related stories:

Revisit a Time Thailand Celebrated Democracy