Thailand: Screw-Tightening and a Draft Constitution

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March 28, 2007 23 00  GMT


Thai military chief Gen. Sonthi
Boonyaratglin asked the government March 28 to declare emergency rule
in Bangkok in anticipation of a March 30 protest. With a draft
constitution due in three weeks, the government is using short-term
police measures and longer-term constitutional means to squash the
opposition’s ability to spark mass uprisings. The opposition likely
will object to any proposed constitution. The real question, then, is
whether the government can minimize the number of opposition supporters
and maximize physical restraints on the remaining opposition.


few hundred people turned out for a small-scale peaceful rally in Sanam
Luang, Thailand, on March 23 to protest the government’s closure of a
TV station affiliated with officials from the ousted Thai Rak Thai
government. In response to plans for a second protest March 30, Thai
military chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin asked the government March 28
to declare emergency rule in Bangkok.

While this might seem a
drastic overreaction, other similar policy moves will follow as the
April 19 publication date of Thailand’s post-coup draft constitution
approaches. In the run-up to the constitution deadline, the government
will work to minimize the number of opposition supporters and maximize
physical restraints on the remaining opposition.

the military government is most concerned with staying in power, or at
the very least with installing a regime subservient to its concerns.
Thailand is about to enter the last phase of the country’s traditional
political cycle that hews to the following pattern:

  • The government is overthrown in a coup.
  • The civilian government takes control.
  • The civilian government fails to satisfy influential interest groups.
  • The civilian government is overthrown in a military coup.
  • An interim military government is established.
  • The
    interim military government is replaced by a pseudo-civilian government
    that is subservient to military concerns — which translates into the
    return of democratic rule.
  • The cycle repeats.

From time to time during the cycle, the king will step in to prevent the country from falling into total chaos.

ensure the military government is not ousted and a nonmilitary
government re-inserted, the leadership must handle public expectations
delicately. To date, it has been careless in maintaining perceptions
that it has democratic intentions. Sonthi has pushed hard for the
insertion of a “nonelected prime minister” clause into the draft
constitution, leading to strong objections from both the public and
draft committee members. The government has since been forced to back
away from this ambition, with Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont even
issuing a public denial March 20.

The government has chosen
to increase the military and police’s ability to crack down on dissent
using legislative means; the military has proposed emergency rule and
the police have proposed a crowd-control law. Surayud has been keen to
emphasize his preference for stability over crackdowns to deal with
political dissent. Still, the regime’s ability to impose physical
control remains absolute, and it will use a military crackdown if
absolutely necessary.

Beyond physical control, the regime
also is concerned with appeasing the potential dissenters, ranging from
domestic and foreign investors to the average Thai voter. Now that
suspicions about the military regime’s commitment to deliver a
democracy have been raised, even anti-coup groups previously opposed to
ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra could begin to align with the
former Thaksin opposition. Thai politics tends to be fluid and
opportunistic, so one common motivation could be all it takes for
disaffected groups to unite into an anti-regime movement, if not a
unified organization. To counter this, the government likely will try
to insert more civilian-controlled checks and balances into the
constitution. Whether such checks and balances could or would be
implemented effectively is another question.

As April 19
approaches, confusing signals about the draft constitution will
continue, while the incremental tightening of military and police
control will speed up. Once the draft is out, protests by the main
opposition groups are almost guaranteed — although it will one to two
weeks before the opposition crystallizes. With the main battle lines
drawn by May, the expanded powers of the police to contain
demonstrations might already have been tested, with the military
standing by should things escalate out of control. A more significant
test, however, will be how many interest groups the government has
failed to appease with the proposed constitution — and hence, how much
potential support the opposition might be able to tap for generating a
mass outbreak of anti-government sentiment.

Related Headlines

Thailand: The Interim Government’s Insecurity
Jan 24, 2007

Thailand: The Coup Leaders Seek a Deal
Oct 27, 2006

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