Democracy is a creation of the people, not an elite few

Democracy is a creation of the people, not an elite few

As the National Reform Council (NRC) has convened and will soon begin to plunge into the so-called "reform" process with all the nitty-gritty details, a few points must be considered.

First, the notion of ya tum hai sia kong — ''don't waste the coup d'etat'' — has come up. But the coup itself has already wasted Thai democracy, so the question is how we can get the democratic process back on track as soon as possible, and how do we ensure that we do not again fall into the vicious cycle of elections, coups and counter-coups as we've experienced over the past 82 years of our experiment with electoral democracy.

The reason I do not like the term sia kong is because it implies an excuse which could be made to delay the return of democracy. Reform could keep going on forever until all issues are agreed upon, thus removing any need to settle the date when the next election could be held. The present road map of the National Council for Peace and Order has not committed to any specific timetable, and Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, prime minister and supreme leader of the NCPO, has been vague on the issue.

The NRC should begin by setting a clear task schedule with specific target dates. When will the constitution be completed? Can the generic laws be drafted in parallel with the constitution and how much more time will be needed to complete it? When will the public hearings take place? Will there be a referendum and when?

Once the NRC sets the schedule, the NCPO should work with the government and the National Legislative Assembly to agree upon a date-specific timetable and announce it to the public. A clear set of dates will also boost the confidence of the business and international communities while lessening the pressure from other political stakeholders.

The reform period should be limited to a year and no more. In the 1960s, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn took a decade to draft the constitution, ending up with another coup and eventually the Oct 14, 1973 student uprising. The NCPO will not have that time luxury and I am quite certain Gen Prayut does not want to face the same fate as Thanom.

Second, is the notion of inclusiveness. It is now clear from the composition of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and NRC that the participants are from only one side. Only those close to the military regime are included whether they are from the armed forces and police, the technocratic civil service, the business class or like-minded political groups. Many are left out, especially the parties to the political conflict of the recent past which could clash again in the near future.

It is too late for the NCPO to appoint anyone new into the formal procedures. However, it does not mean others are to be left out. If the NCPO is sincere in its intentions to build peace and reconciliation, a more participatory process must be implemented.

The NRC should start organising public forums across the nation to include all stakeholders in the various reform areas. This has been done before in the drafting of the 1997 constitution. The National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB) also has experience in building consensus on development issues, similar to what might be discussed in the reform hearings. The emphasis must be on openness and participation.

The government and the NCPO must also set up roundtables to speak with the various political stakeholders. Politicians, especially former elected MPs and senators, have their constituents across the country. To ignore them is to basically alienate a large part of the population. It shows a flawed attitude to think there are "a few good men (and women)" — the intelligentsia — who know better and can set the direction of the country. A nation is built by its citizens, without which the ruler cannot rule.

Most importantly, the regime needs to be more generous and broad-minded in listening to criticism of its actions. Members of the press must be allowed to express their views freely. Suppression and intimidation used against those with dissenting opinions must cease.

Third is the principle of reform. It is all well and good that the NCPO has designated the areas needing reform. There is no denying that education, healthcare, energy, the media, and the economy are important and many aspects certainly must be addressed. But it is not like the issues have never been debated before. There have been mechanisms to build platforms and consensus in the past through political parties' platforms or national economic and social development plans.

Development and reform is a continuous process, it has never stopped, and it cannot be completed overnight.

Before we jump into details, what I think we need is to come up with an agreed-upon social contract — how can we progress as a nation without resorting to violence on the streets or raw power grabs through coup d'etats. How can we sustain a liberal and pluralistic democracy?

In principle, we have to agree that democracy is the best system there is to guarantee the rights and liberty of all. All Thais may not be born equal, but they must be provided with the right environment and equal opportunities to grow and prosper in accordance with their wishes and dreams. There is no "fate" to designate one's place in a society. A rural farmer from the Northeast has the same human dignity as an urban Bangkokian. Social mobility is key to peace, wealth and prosperity.

Many argue for political stability, at the cost of freedom. Political stability is certainly a condition for sustainable economic development. But democracy is the essential factor to ensure fair and equal opportunity in economic growth. Stability follows if the people trust the system that protects and guarantees their basic rights and liberties.

Democracy is a learning process of the citizens. There is no one right way. Democracy cannot be dictated. A "pre-set" condition designed to give one group more advantages over the others will only lead to more discontent. Gen Prayut and his regime need to understand this before embarking on their reform agenda and before it is too late for them to turn back and face the wrath of a social uprising.

Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.

Suranand Vejjajiva

Former secretary-general to the prime minister

Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.

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