THAILAND: A long road back to human rights and the rule of law
Predictably, the military junta in Thailand has coerced, threatened, bought and cajoled part of the electorate into passing its 309-article constitution on August 19. From results to date, just over 14 million people out of the country's 45 million eligible voters crossed the box in favour of the charter. As only 25 million bothered to turn up at the poll booths, despite the saturating propaganda campaign in the weeks beforehand, this number was sufficient to carry the draft.
The number of voters was far lower than in previous recent elections, which have all been at least 62 per cent. In fact, the last time that there was a less than 60 per cent voter turnout was in the March 1992 general election that was hosted by the previous military dictatorship; its leader then took over as prime minister and was ousted by massive street protests a couple of months later, precipitating the period of nascent democracy and moves towards genuine constitutionalism of the 1990s, culminating in the abrogated 1997 Constitution. Unsurprisingly, the low percentage of votes cast has been played down, lest it suggest a heavy scepticism about the referendum and weariness about the persistent presence of the military in Thailand's politics and public affairs.
The conditions under which the constitution was passed bode ill for the days and months ahead. Martial law remained in effect across half the country. Opponents of the draft were intimidated and materials confiscated from houses and post offices. Protestors against the coup have been charged with criminal offences. Villagers were reportedly paid to attend government-backed rallies: precisely the sort of practice that the interim administration accused its predecessors of using to win elections. The army and bureaucracy were mobilised to see that the document, jacketed in yellow as an unmistakable reference to the monarchy, was accepted. The entire event was conducted under a heavy anti-democratic atmosphere: precisely the sort of referendum that dictators have used throughout history to give the false impression of public endorsement for their actions. History also has many lessons about the types of repressive regimes and social turmoil that emerge from such deceitful public rituals.
The people of Thailand are now caught in strange and contradictory circumstances. On the one hand, the social and economic life of their country is undeniably in the 21st century. On the other hand, its political and legal life has now been firmly thrown back to the 1980s. As a result, many good persons will likely withdraw from those areas completely, while others who may have contributed to them will now be reluctant or unwilling to do so. The parliament, courts and legal profession will likely lose good people, as the former returns to an elite bureaucratic mode of government and the latter become more and more politically compromised and corrupted. Fewer persons also will seek to obtain redress for grievances through these institutions, and will instead turn to outside avenues and feudal remedies in order to gain partial satisfaction, rather than get nothing at all.
The coming general election too will do nothing to solve the country's problems. The junta will undoubtedly continue to manipulate and malign others throughout the coming period. The military has re-cemented its position at the centre of key institutions and regardless of whatever else happens it will use its renewed authority to full effect. Political parties will have only a small window for organising and campaigning. Those that sided with the regime can be expected to obtain the greatest advantages in the lead-up to the vote, while meanwhile over a hundred executives from the former ruling party have had their political rights revoked for five years under an order of the coup leader, shamefully endorsed by the proxy constitutional court set up after last September. In view of the current circumstances, the European Union and others would be wrong to send observers as has been proposed, as they would only serve to lend credence to another sham.
The Asian Human Rights Commission deeply regrets the passing of this regressive charter, not only for the people of Thailand but the people of the entire region. In the 1990s Thailand emerged as a place of hope and possibility for persons concerned with human rights in Asia. It set an example that encouraged others in more repressed societies. While the former government did much to damage this positive atmosphere, it took the army to destroy it completely. To rescue their country, the people of Thailand now have another long road ahead of them. For the sake not only of themselves but for the people in every other part of Asia that looked to them for inspiration and guidance, they should find the stomach and determination to carry on.