Open referendum debate a positive sign

Open referendum debate a positive sign

A referendum campaign billboard has been put up at Bangkok's Victory Monument. The Election Commission has invited opponents of the draft charter to join televised debates on the topic.
A referendum campaign billboard has been put up at Bangkok's Victory Monument. The Election Commission has invited opponents of the draft charter to join televised debates on the topic.

The decision by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to allow a wider space for debate and exchange of opinions among the referendum electorate is a positive development that generates more confidence among the Thai public about the prospect of a return to a fuller democracy.

This gesture should be welcome as part of the preparation for a myriad of further fundamental and meaningful reforms in the future. We will need the participation and ownership of the entire public to institute the fundamental Road Map for national governance. And that process should begin within the narrow space now opining up.

Time is running out before the Aug 7 referendum. But, against the backdrop of pervasive political apathy and public scepticism about the value of a strictly controlled political ritual aimed at wining public trust and legitimacy for the draft supreme law of the land, this series of country-wide public debates on the merits and demerits of the new constitution will surely contribute to our democratic culture going forward.

Kudos must also go to the tenacious and conscientious group of committed political activists called the Platform of Concerned Citizens (POCC), who have been actively engaged, against all odds and earning the ire of a large part of the Thai public and the powers-that-be, in their campaign for more talks on the charter.

Their membership and signatories include many active civil society representatives, well-known social critics, leading politicians who have come to the conclusion that they need to put their differences aside for the sake of the country.

We must view this precious "democratic space" being pried open as a new beginning for Thailand's long and challenging journey back to the more civil, stable and reconciled democratic politics we once enjoyed under the 1997 "People's Constitution".

The deep national divisiveness, multi-layered conflicts and multi-dimensional problems that the country is facing will not allow a quick fix just like in the past. We have been experimenting with democracy since 1932, long before all the neighbouring countries regained their independence from their colonial powers. But we have had 25 general elections and 19 coups, 12 of them successful.

It has been a roller coaster ride for democracy. We have developed a culture of "political musical chairs" between the military and civilians, and the populace has become quite adjusted to coups.

In the past, a power conflict within the military establishment would trigger a coup d'etat. Disagreement between the elected government and military leaders, often regarding the appointment or promotion of military leadership, one clique being favoured over another, would certainly invite military intervention in politics.

After a brief period of control, with its own power conflicts resolved, the military would have found themselves unfit and unprepared to manage an increasingly complicated set of national challenges, and they would invariably return the country to the civilians. And the cycle would start all over again.

But this time it is different. The main root cause of the putsch has been the dangerous political divide, leading to national paralysis and "a clear and present danger" of a civil war. All the national intractable problems that have been accumulated through the years have always been swept under the carpet and the country has been experiencing an ad hoc approach to its national and societal malaise.

This time around, all those problems, be they political, governance, patronage, corruption, abuse of an overwhelmingly centralised, inefficient and suffocating bureaucracy, a corrupt and hopelessly inefficient and parasitic police department, inequity and widespread poverty, an outdated educational system and an uncompetitive economy, are converging onto the platform of chaotic politics.

The politicians must share a major part of the blame for the derailment of democracy this time around. And a moment of atonement and epiphany is needed. For in the past they took an open democratic system hostage for their personal and factional interests.

Democratic institutions have become just a set of furniture. The constitution, political parties, elections, the institutions of checks and balances, the legislature, have all become decorative pieces to camouflage the raw and fierce contest in interests. Serious social ills and unsustainable economic inequity grew, communal tensions and political conflicts ensued.

The system broke down. The substantive norms of democracy, limitations of power, moderation in the exercise of power, respect for minority views and the rule of law have never been institutionalised or allowed to take root.

National problems and political conflicts always require, in the words of John Locke, "an appeal to heaven". Extra-constitutional resolutions have been necessary, for the political plane was not efficient or strong enough to handle the stresses and strains. It wobbled and snapped every time.

While the political class must accept a major part of our democratic derailment, prolonged military rule is not the answer either. As much as the country is facing a myriad of deep and protracted problems, the only legitimacy that the junta could claim is that it is preparing the country to return to the democratic path.

It should not confuse longevity of service as custodians of national interest as a sign of success. That is for a democratically elected government. For the junta, the shortest term of service, leaving a sound and effective governing structure, allowing for its continuing evolution into a fuller form of participatory democracy, is the best contribution it can make.

The narrow space being opened for a wider debate on the draft constitution can be seen as a reflection of this awareness on the part of the NCPO junta.

For the long-term interests of the country, a return to a fuller form of democracy is the only option.

Economic problems continue to be managed by temporary measures, domestic and foreign investment have not returned, exports cannot be expected to rise, corruption cases are on the rise, abuse of power has been on the increase, foreign pressure and isolation will be prolonged. Things are not looking good for the country.

But the most alarming sign of future problems is the democratic fatigue among the people. There seems to be a high degree of political apathy among the youth, a widespread sense of inefficacy among the people. The mistrust of politics and the distaste for participation do not auger well for our eventual return to the democratic path.

We should take the contribution of the POCC and the positive response of the powers that be as a common recognition of this very critical issue.

The intense national debates to be organised nationwide and on various stages by many relevant groups and interest parties in the next few days are also a form of healing and rehabilitation for the deeply divided electorate.

A free and unhampered exchange of views is the substance of any democracy. People need to make an informed judgement on their own future as contained and outlined in the proposed constitution. And the process will lend legitimacy to the referendum itself.

As for the junta, this could be the beginning of the ultimate legacy that it could bequeath to the country. The decision to open up space for rational public debate not only demonstrates their pragmatism towards the fleeting nature of power and their realism with regard to the flimsiness of politics, but it can be seen also as a reflection of their goodwill.


Surin Pitsuwan

Former Asean secretary-general

Surin Pitsuwan is president of the Future Innovative Thailand Institute (Fit), a former Asean secretary-general, and a former foreign minister of Thailand.

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