The big issue: Consensus on the constitution

The big issue: Consensus on the constitution

There were signs last week that questions are growing and doubts are rising about the 20th attempt to write a supreme law.

It's not discontent. Yet. The army chief himself warned that he had better not see any, or else. There's not strong opposition to a constitution that is still in its formative stage, but there's not an oped page in the country without misgivings. There's no national malaise, but neither the hopes of 2007 nor the enthusiasm of 1997 are getting a replay.

Both Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his chosen charter writer Borwornsak Uwanno expressed similar thoughts in response to doubts raised in the media, online and in the coffee shops where politics is always a discussion topic. They insisted the constitution is still a work in progress, the first draft won't be finished until next month, stop kvetching.

There are troubling facts. Mr Borwornsak is the co-author of other constitutions, none of them a success. He has been releasing details, which are literally revolutionary, while supporting a military-backed order to halt, indeed to suppress, organised national discussions on what should be in the constitution. Unelected prime ministers and a fully appointed Senate seem so out of step with advancing democracy that the commander of the army stepped in.

Gen Udomdej Sitabutr is also deputy defence minister and also secretary-general of the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and also an original junta member and also a trusted member of the Burapha Phayak (Tigers of the East). He said the day he took over as army chief last October that the media should be "free but monitored" and last week he gave a live demonstration.

He said the army was watching "groups that might cause problems" and would quickly adjust their attitudes when necessary. People were free to discuss the constitution, said Gen Udomdej, so long as they didn't speak publicly. If you are concerned, take it privately to the Constitution Drafting Committee.

Mr Borwornsak's CDC has stifled public roles in the drafting process, which takes place behind locked and guarded doors. Gen Prayut waved off concern, saying that since there's not even a constitution yet, what is there to discuss?

There was even concern right inside the CDC. A committee chairman, Jade Donavanik, suggested that junta members and their rubber-stamp National Assembly should be among those excluded from politics for two years — just like CDC members, who will be excluded from holding office for a while.

Mr Jade recalled a certain species at a trough. "We want to prevent them from hogging power" after people get a vote again, he said.

As Chulalongkorn University professor and occasional Bangkok Post analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak sagely noted: "All who engage in politics eventually become politicians."

And to the surprise of no one, a budding politician spoke out forcefully against the very idea of a future cooling-off period for patriots currently serving their country so faithfully.

Gen Prayut "I Wanted to Punch That Reporter In His Face" Chan-o-cha, Head of Everything and possibly willing to serve the nation he loves far beyond the lifetime of the military regime, said the proposed two-year cooling-off was a terrible idea for him, although fine for the CDC. So the proposal was dead. Constitutions, Thai and otherwise, come in a remarkable variety of sizes, including no size.

Precisely 700 years after giving birth to civil rights with Magna Carta, Great Britain does fine without a written constitution. The US constitution, admired by many for a couple of centuries, can be printed in large type in a book small enough for any pocket. And with apologies to Dostoevsky, great writing usually is terse, blunt and to the point.

The point is there is no limit in either direction on the size of the new constitution. There is not even precedent about it. But Mr Borwornsak is assembling a huge document that obviously seeks to limit political power by trying to predict future events, and by disobeying the law of unintended consequences. And there is no way he or the NCPO will succeed without popular support.

So far, it's not there. Last week, it came to this. A call for the public to help replenish the national blood banks came to virtual red-yellow blows. Online, it was remarked that the nurses who oversee blood donations had implied that yellow-shirt blood was far better than red-shirt blood. Virtual protests broke out.

It's the job of the CDC and the military regime to build a national consensus. They must explain why the country must have this particular constitution, with the unexpected sections, those controversial ones.

This can be done in an orderly way, where groups and individuals come to the reform committees with ideas and objections. It can come down to a referendum, with reasoned debate, for the country to decide.

Otherwise the country will likely continue to refuse to adopt a consensus, and in the most fractious way, possibly involving real blood.

Alan Dawson

Online Reporter / Sub-Editor

A Canadian by birth. Former Saigon's UPI bureau chief. Drafted into the American Armed Forces. He has survived eleven wars and innumerable coups. A walking encyclopedia of knowledge.

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