Charter Of, By and For the Elites

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By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 4 (IPS) – As they makes half-hearted attempts to restore democracy in Thailand, the country’s elites that profited most from last September’s coup are in two minds about the role of elections and public participation in the future.

Thai democracy can do without either goes the thinking among a section of the country’s political leadership, sections of academia and even the judiciary — members of which were hand-picked by the junta that staged the country’s 18th coup with plans to redraw its political map.

This oligarchy is leaving no room for doubt as to who it has in mind in attempting to erect this wall of exclusion — the rural poor. Anti-poor and anti-election rhetoric is visible in the newly released draft of the country’s 18th constitution and the arguments that support it.

‘’Constitution drafting committee member Komsan Podhikong said many rural and uneducated people still do not have a good understanding of how democracy works. As a result, their political thinking is often over-simplified, especially when it comes to exercising their voting and other constitutional rights,” wrote Nophakhun Limsamarnphun, a columnist, in the Sunday edition of ‘The Nation’ newspaper.
Another member of this drafting committee, a former judge, is reported to have said that ‘’elections are evil.”

Little wonder why this ‘’constitution for the rich,” as some are describing it, has provoked a debate about how serious the junta and its supporters among the urban elite are in moving the country forward as a developing democracy. The clear limits placed on the popular will in the new charter — including replacing an elected upper house with an appointed one — has become hard to ignore given the democratic spirit of the 1997 constitution. This ‘’people’s constitution” was shredded by the junta after grabbed power on Sep. 19, 2006.

‘’Fear and loathing of elective democracy is the dominant theme of the new draft constitution,” argues a respected political analyst, who writes under the pseudonym Chang Noi, in Monday’s edition of The Nation. ‘’Never again, the drafters hope, should real power be based upon the people’s vote.”

‘’This is a way to keep the poor out of the political system because the elite favour a patronage system, where they can retain their status,” Bantorn Ondam, advisor to Assembly of the Poor, one of the country’s largest grassroots networks, told IPS. ‘’They would rather deal with the poor through welfare schemes than strengthening their political and democratic rights.”

The anti-poor sentiments being aired by a numerically small, yet vocal and powerful elite, stems from the realisation that the rural poor proved a powerful constituency during the five-and-a-half year administration of Thaksin Shinawatra, the twice-elected prime minister who was deposed in last year’s putsch. (Thaksin was thrown out following months of street protests in Bangkok last year that accused him of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power.)

The rural poor, who make up close to 70 percent of this country’s 64 million people, came out strongly in favour of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai – TRT) party through its plank of pro-poor policies, which ranged from a universal health care scheme to economic initiatives to boost village incomes.

At the February 2005 parliamentary elections, some 10.3 million people voted from the north-east, Thailand’s poorest belt, out of 32.3 million votes cast. This area accounted for close to 150 of the 400 elected seats in the parliament. It was a constituency that helped the TRT steamroll into power for the second time.

In fact, Thaksin’s successor at the helm of the TRT appears determined to retain such an unprecedented development of the poor transforming into a potential political force after decades of being ignored and marginalised. In dismissing the charter released to the public last week, Chaturon Chaisaeng, the TRT’s acting leader, told a recent panel discussion that the new constitution is ‘’only restoring and fostering aristocracy.”

Thailand, which retains many feudal traits in its culture, saw the stirrings of anti-democratic sentiments soon after the coup. The military leaders who received open support from the political, bureaucratic and economic old guard, shut over 300 community and other radio stations in the poorer north and north-east regions. And attempts by the rural poor to protest or air their grievances in Bangkok have been frequently met by bans imposed by the military and its appointed government.
‘’What is so obvious is that the poor have had little to do with undermining Thai democracy,” says Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. ‘’It is not the poor that staged the coup; it is not the poor that wants to place limits on elections.”

‘’We have been presented with an elite, conservative and authoritarian constitution to discuss,” he explained during an interview. ‘’The 1997 constitution attempted to increase democratic space and extend democratic participation. The one before is trying to limit democratic space.”

And if the new constitution’s aim, while silencing the poor, is to stop the TRT’s return to power then some commentators say that the 35-member committee that drafted the document is out of touch with the country’s ground realities. For the party that Thaksin headed till last year was the largest in the country, claiming to have at one point an estimated 24 million members. (END/2007)




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