A former Thai foreign minister voices his hopes for the future of Thai democracy. It is not clear, however, that Thailand can strengthen its democracy through consensus-building if entrenched political forces continue to thwart the people’s wishes.
While some of Thailand’s neighbours have discarded authoritarianism and military rule to become successful democracies, Thailand has since 1932 been struggling to transform itself from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy within a democratic setting. The current constitution of Thailand, introduced in 2017 by the military authority, turned Thailand into a quasi-democracy. A move towards liberal democracy has not occurred in Thailand because nobody in power has ventured out of their bubble to talk to other important players in Thai society.
Thailand has gone through many exercises of constitutional drafting, the contents of which usually reflect the desires and aspirations of whoever was in power at the time. In short, the drawing up of all past and present Thai constitutions has been of the elites’ making. Only the 1997 Constitution was considered the people’s constitution, as its drafters came from many walks of life. In contrast, the Constitution of 2017 was drafted by two dozen personalities appointed by the coup leaders and carried out under the purview and direction of the military junta. (The 250-member Senate contains six serving generals from the armed forces and the police.)
Various institutions or entities with a stake in Thai society have co-existed with different ideas about Thai democracy, yet there has been mistrust and distrust. There has also been a remarkable lack of communication with the public. One would have expected that a coup leader or a sitting prime minister would invite all major stakeholders to discuss and form a consensus on the nature and direction of the democratic kingdom of Thailand, prior to writing a new constitution.
With the results of the national election on 14 May 2023, the likely coalition government under the leadership of the Move Forward Party (MFP) has stated clearly and firmly that Thailand is to have a new constitution that is truly democratic in nature. Hopefully, the new government will hold extensive consultations to find a consensus acceptable to all parties.
The journey towards such a consensus would not be easy. There are still large segments of traditionalists, royalists, and conservatives in Thai society. The civilian bureaucracy, comfortable with being at the centre of administrative power, would not like to relinquish its authority and prerogatives. The military establishment is preoccupied with its concern for national security and is clinging on to its belief that it is the defender of the triple gems of nationhood, religious belief and traditions, and the monarchy while ignoring the modern and democratic concept that the military must be under civilian rule and must have no role in politics.
Besides, many segments of Thai society still believe that the military establishment is the counterforce to anyone or any movement that would harm or have bad intentions against the aforesaid triple gems. Unlike citizens of other countries that have successfully moved towards democracy, the Thai people have not come to a common belief that they are the real power and that they hold ownership of Thai sovereignty; that, therefore, they do not have to be dependent on institutions like the military to ensure Thailand’s stability, security, prosperity and progress.
The results of the national election clearly demonstrated the will of the majority of Thai people to see changes for the better, namely, towards an unimpeded democracy. The overwhelming majority of the 39.5 million voters who turned out clearly showed that traditional and conservative thinking and practice have no place in the Thai political arena anymore. With 38 per cent voting for MFP and almost 29 per cent voting for Pheu Thai, the voters collectively rejected old-school politics of money peddling, cronyism, and patronage. They have spoken out clearly that in Thai politics, there is no role for the military establishment and that the people can take care of themselves in a democratic setting.
In this context, how much and how far the MFP with its coalition partners could pursue their objectives and realise the democratic transformation of Thailand remains to be seen. Hopefully, the new coalition government of Thailand will have the will, vision, and humility to consult with all major players to reach a consensus to move Thailand forward. There will need to be a spirit of compromise but with a common, non-negotiable objective of making Thailand truly democratic.
The time is right for the older generation to make way for the new generation to take over the ship of state.
At the same time, this author hopes that the election losers, the pro-military elements, the ultra-conservatives and the traditionalists would realise that they can no longer hold on to the old ways. They would have to let go and allow the forces of change to take hold, for the betterment and democratic advancement of Thai politics.
The conservative group of political actors and vested interests, comprised mostly of older politicians, could help to further Thai democratisation by not being entrenched, revengeful, and recalcitrant. The time is right for the older generation to make way for the new generation to take over the ship of state. The new generation must be magnanimous in victory by reaching out and asking for advice. Everyone has a duty or responsibility to Thai society to work for the common good to make it a truly democratic one.
Kasit Piromya was Foreign Minister of Thailand from 2008-2011. He has served as an Ambassador to a number of countries such as Russia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Germany, and the United States.