KHON KAEN – In late January, about 250 Northeasterners from six provinces gathered at the conference room of the Petcharat Garden Hotel in Roi Et to participate in the drafting process of Thailand’s twentieth constitution. The military government claims to be seeking citizen participation in drafting the constitution, but these public forums to gather input from Thais across the country seem to be nothing but a false front in the Northeast.
Last November the military government appointed a 36-member committee headed by legal scholar Bavornsak Uwanno from the conservative King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI) to draft a new charter. This so-called Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) was given a four-month window to propose a draft before sending it for approval to the National Reform Council (NRC). And Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha stressed that the drafting process would focus on the public’s participation.
In a country that cannot seem to seriously commit to one constitution, the military government’s announcement that it would scrap the 2007 constitution and start anew startled no one. However, their stated commitment to draw input from the voices of everyday Thai citizens seems peculiar for a regime that has suspended all democratic processes and put a lid on public opposition.
Under the title “Finding a Solution For Thailand: Weaving People’s Power to Reform Thailand” the CDC and the NRC launched a series of public forums to engage citizens. These two-day events toured ten cities across the country, including the three Northeastern provinces of Roi Et, Udon Thani, and Surin.
Early announcements indicated that villagers would be randomly picked through the house registration system. But in Khon Kaen fewer than ten villagers accepted the invitation to join the forum in Roi Et and the bulk of participants were recruited through the personal connections of the organizers. Sompong Pratoomthong, Chairman of the KPI’s Center for Civic Development in Khon Kaen and an organizer of the forums, suggested public interest in the event was low.
At the event in Roi Et, Chairman Wanchai Watanasap urged the attendants to respect each other’s opinions and warned that there cannot be any conflict among the participants. Then he divided the crowd into eight discussion groups and sent them off with a moderator and a notetaker.
In one of the small groups, the moderator kicked off the discussion by asking about the participants’ vision for Thailand after the new constitution was in place. The room remained silent until a young man raised his hand and said, “I don’t want any more coups.” The moderator quickly responded that such concerns would require private conversations with the organisers.
Among the most prominent civil society groups in the Northeast, many are debating the merits of participating in the public forums at all. Some, like Suvit Kulapwong, General-Secretary of NGO CORD Isan, reject the legitimacy of the military-installed government and the charter drafting process.
“They talk about reform, but this is just gibberish. This reform process is not for the people, but for the elites in power who are trying to reorganize their relationships and clear their conflict,” said Mr. Suvit, referring to the prolonged rivalry between the country’s conservative establishment and the camp of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Among those who oppose the constitution drafting process, the belief prevails that without lifting martial law and allowing freedom of expression, there cannot be an open dialogue on the contents of the new charter. Under the current circumstances all participation is to no avail.
“The main point of a democracy is to acknowledge the voices of the people,” said Jakrapong Thanavorapong, an activist working to protect natural resources in Isaan. “We are not participating in the public forums because we don’t believe a new constitution can offer any solutions to the problems in Isaan.”
But Wipattanachai Pimhin, a civil society leader from Khon Kaen’s Nam Phong District, is not convinced that participation is futile. He chose to participate in the public forums. “We are not obeying the military junta, but the forums are the only channel for us and the people to give input to drafting process,” he said. However, he admits that the chances of the CDC considering civil society’s suggestions are low.
Each public forum concludes with a list of suggestions purportedly compiled by the participants to be considered for the constitution. However, some participants in Khon Kaen voiced concerns that the government has already finished drafting a constitution and will ignore public opinion.
Supot Thongnerkhaw, one of six group chairmen of the public forum in Roi Et, said that he has zero hope that any of their suggestions will make it into the constitution. “In my opinion, the whole process is just window-dressing. The CDC and the NRC most likely already have a draft in the drawer. If our suggestions fit in, fine, but if not, they will just ignore them,” Mr. Supot said.
While the forums convey to the public that the constitution drafters are interested in broad-based participation, Titipol Phakdeewanich, Political Scientist at Ubon Ratchathani University, believes their main purpose lies elsewhere. “The goal is to give legitimacy to the drafting process,” Mr Titipol reasons, “so they can show the international community that the constitution is based on popular will.”
Political observers have noted that the CDC is composed of members of the conservative elite who were involved in the drafting of the military-backed 2007 constitution. Some members reportedly participated in or supported last year’s anti-government protest, which raises concerns over the nonpartisanship of the drafting body.
Mr. Titipol argues that the members of the drafting committee mainly represent Thailand’s old generation. He is trying to engage students through public seminars at his university, but many of them believe that their voices do not matter, and they fear potential repercussions from the authorities if they express dissenting opinions.
“There are people in their sixties and seventies writing Thailand’s new constitution, but any drafting process should include younger people. After all, this charter is mainly written for the younger generation. We live in the 21st century and we don’t want see Thailand move backwards in time, do we?”