Between fickleness and an insane nation
Tomorrow is Constitution Day, but with 17 charters since 1932, we can call Dec 10 the day when Thailand celebrates 80 years of fickleness. Charter changes to accommodate the times are one thing; 17 constitutions and counting in 80 years is an entirely different matter.
Since the Pheu Thai Party's general election victory on July 3, 2011, one of the group's top mandates, if not the top mandate, has been to amend Section 291 of the constitution to make way for the establishment of a drafting assembly to rewrite the 2007 charter.
Since day one, from the first and then second readings of the proposal, the move has ignited controversy. There have been accusations from the opposition Democrat Party that the move is part of a covert plan by the ruling government to overthrow the monarchy and part of a plot to pave the way for the exoneration and return of Thaksin Shinawatra. The former is preposterous and has been dismissed by the Constitution Court, while the latter is arguably the top priority of the ruling government.
The court ruled on July 13 that the charter amendment bill should be suspended and a public referendum be held, and thus far Pheu Thai has backed away. Parliament will resume on Dec 21, and there may or may not be a push for a third reading then; but whether in two weeks' time or two months' time, rest assured there will be another push.
The reason is obvious: Thaksin wants to come back sooner rather than later. Who wouldn't?
The obstacles are three-fold: First, tanks in the streets; second, protesters in the streets; third, Constitution Court judges on the bench.
Regarding tanks in the streets, the verdict is very noncommittal; the scenario is always possible, but unlikely. This is no longer 2006 and if we are to believe news reports, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has done a good job of pacifying the generals. Also, the dangerous consequences of tanks in the streets must be seriously considered. But then again, this is Thailand.
Regarding protesters in the streets, herein lies the crux. If we take the rally staged last month by the Pitak Siam group led by General Boonlert Kaewprasit as the dress rehearsal, then the government is in a good position. Here we had the leader of the rally saying he would love to see a military coup. Then a few days later he raised a glass of red wine in a toast with the head of national security, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung.
Gen Boonlert also said if the first rally didn't attract enough people he would call it off, but was encouraged when some 20,000 people showed up at the Royal Turf Club on Oct 28. He then called another rally, with the condition that he would quit if the number of protesters didn't reach one million, an impossibility. Within eight hours on Nov 24, the day of the rally, he had called it off. The date chosen is also telling, as it was only 10 days from His Majesty the King's birthday, when the rally would have been called off anyway.
The man set himself up for failure, and created conditions to guarantee it. The whole thing stunk like a barrel of bad pla-raa _ no leadership, no organisation and no resolve.
On the other hand, the Royal Thai Police somehow defied conventional wisdom and showed that they aren't entirely inept after all. More than 20,000 security personnel were employed effectively. The Internal Security Act was invoked and the rally site was barricaded, leaving only a few entrances, thereby preventing protesters from joining in droves. The rally was permitted, but made as difficult as possible.
The police demonstrated resolve in their use of force. They used tear gas to disperse those trying to breach the perimeters. Some called it police brutality; others called it effective police work. At the end of the day, reports estimated only about 12,000 made it to the Royal Plaza.
It would be too easy to accuse the police of taking sides. The fact is police have wielded their batons during both yellow shirt and red shirt demonstrations. Both movements pushed their issues, showing leadership, organisation and resolve. On the other hand the police weren't put to a real test by Pitak Siam, who melted in defeat within eight hours, thanks to Gen Boonlert.
When the third reading of the charter amendment proposal rolls around, whether in two weeks, two months or two years, putting protesters in the streets to affect the outcome will require leadership, organisation and resolve. If we take the Pitak Siam rally as a dress rehearsal, then they might as well have marched naked in the streets.
What about the yellow shirt PAD? If reports are to be believed, they don't seem to be up for much either.
In this case, the verdict is that it doesn't matter if every single Thai except for the 15 millions who voted Pheu Thai are anti-Thaksin. Without leadership, organisation and resolve, all is for naught.
That leaves the judges on the bench. Since the 2006 coup, one can easily interpret the meaning of the two verdicts against the Thaksin nominee political parties Thai Rak Thai and the People Power Party. But again, 2012 is not 2006. We shouldn't read much into the court's dismissal of the charge that Pheu Thai was attempting to overthrow the monarchy with the charter amendment proposal. The charge was too preposterous even to ponder, without a shred of evidence behind it.
At the same time, one can never underestimate the power of persuasion. After all, even 2006 coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin famously jumped political camps.
The verdict is then that any move against the proposed amendment or against Pheu Thai must have valid legal grounds; otherwise the consequences may be dangerous. But then again, this is Thailand, where grounds are often invalid and illegal, but are used regardless.
At the end of the day, it is Pheu Thai and the UDD that have the votes in the parliament and the leadership, organisation and resolve to take over the streets. The rally cries of democracy and justice _ regardless of whether they are truly genuine or just used as political tools _ are enough to put fire in the bellies of the red shirts.
On the other hand, a rallying cry to protect the monarchy might lack fervour when there isn't actually a force trying to overthrow the institution. A rallying cry against corruption might lack fire when the majority of respondents in every poll taken in Thailand are OK with it anyway, as long as they feel they are taken care of. And it's not like we have an incorruptible alternative, though the cry against corruption is well warranted.
That said, at the mention of the name "Thaksin" half the country is liable to go into an epileptic fit and the possibility of him returning in triumph could be enough to put plenty of protesters in the streets. Pitak Siam at least showed that a number of people are willing to march; it's just a matter of leadership, organisation and resolve.
This begs a question: Do the ordinary citizens who make up the anti-Thaksin movement have the stomach and the resolve that was demonstrated by their crimson-hued counterparts during April and May of 2010?
For the past six years, Thaksin has made many good moves and many bad ones.
The worst move is that rather than attempt to persuade, win over, or pacify the ordinary citizens who at best disdain him and at worst despise him, he has instead always alienated them. That's why the wisest course of action for him has always been to keep quiet and stay cool. From time to time he has been able to control himself. But invariably again and again he opens his mouth and half the nation goes into an epileptic fit.
Here is where a referendum as recommended by the Constitution Court could head off any dangerous consequences, provided of course that Thais can accept the result of a referendum.
So we celebrate this Dec 10, the day of fickleness, with a look into the future, which is a shady mash-up of predictable characters and unpredictable scenarios. This is because when analysing politics, we should never forget that logic and reason can fly out the window at anytime. Human behaviour is never an exact science, and political behavior is too often akin to that displayed in an insane asylum.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at email@example.com.
Bangkok Post columnist
Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.