This article is part of our special report EU-Thailand relations after the coup.
Late last year, the chairs of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the head of its ASEAN delegation, issued an invitation to deposed Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to come to Brussels to address MEPs on the state of democracy in her country.
To their surprise, not only was the request refused, but the new Prime Minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the military junta, even wondered out loud on Thai radio if the invitation was genuine.
Shinawatra never came. She is under a form of house arrest in Bangkok, awaiting trial on a corruption case for a rice subsidy scheme that her allies insist is politically motivated.
But the row – with Elmar Brock and Dr Werner Langen – issuing a joint complaint stating their “surprise and deep disappointment[…] with the decision of the Thai authorities to block her appearance in an open debate in the European Parliament” is a sign of how low EU-Thai relations have sunk since the military coup of May 2014.
At that point, the EU was poised to sign a Free Trade Agreement with Thailand. That is now indefinitely suspended, whilst the Commission ponders a full ban on Thai fish imports to Europe – an industry worth some $3bln a year, and potential body blow to the Thai economy.
Meanwhile, human rights abuses and clampdowns on press freedoms have risen alarmingly under the junta, prompting condemnation from MEPs and rights groups.
And the junta’s promised deadlines for a return to democracy keep slipping.
To take Thailand’s Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at his own word, the country is more than midway on a smooth path back to democracy.
A referendum on a new constitution is currently being drafted, and will probably be held in July this year, with elections to follow in “mid-2017”.
If all goes according to plan, that would still mark more than three years since the general declared martial law in May 2014, overthrew the democratically-elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a military coup, and installed himself as premier, claiming to be saving Thailand from months of street protests that threatened the country’s stability.
But the constitution itself – at least the latest draft of it released in January – was branded as a deliberate attempt at deceiving the outside word by one of the world’s leading scholars on Thai constitutional history.
Professor Peter Leyland, author of The Constitutional System of Thailand: A Contextual Analysis, told euractiv.com, “Personally, I have very little faith in the constitutional process.
“I’m convinced the draft is not going to count for anything….it’s all being manipulated for their convenience.
“I think they [the junta] are hoping they can string people along. They are calculating that as long as they are promising some kind of referendum on the constitution, that states like the US and Britain and so on will give the benefit of doubt to the regime.
“I think from an international point of view, that’s what their calculation is.
“The big uncertainty at the moment is the state of the king, and the succession – and politics is kind of on hold. Because any kind of free speech is banned.”
“One of the things they [the junta] are desperately trying to do is the old Establishment – which the military represents – is living in a state of denial that politics in Thailand has permanently changed.
“Although it’s true to say that the cult of the individual counts for a lot, in terms of how Thai politics works, it’s also true to say that things have changed because expectations have changed, because there has been the ‘Thaksin [Shinawatra] experience’ as it were, where politics has delivered.
“And they want to turn the clock back. But it won’t turn back. This is the thing they don’t understand.
Those critcisms centre on the nitty-gritty of the most recent draft constitution, released in January.
One draft of a new constitution – Thailand’s 20th in modern times – drafted by military-appointed panel has been scrapped as too repressive.
Already the date for a planned election – at one point to be held this year – has slipped to summer 2017.
The draft constitution forsees an entirely unelected upper chamber of 200 members, appointed by the military. At the beginning of March, General Prayuth added that they should serve a minimum of five years, in order that there is a “plan to guarantee balance during the transitional period.”
Absolute power would reside – along with the king – in the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) until the election and the appointment of a cabinet. However, the NCPO could cancel elections, or allow the junta to continue in power, or prevent individual winning parties from forming a cabinet.
The military is granted constitutional immunity for all orders, announcements and actions until after the formation of a new cabinet, potentially legalising the government’s “attitude adjustment” programmes for journalists and dissidents.
Other ‘problems’ include enshrining the military’s educational programme into the national curriculum, and making it more difficult to amend the constitution in future, and weakening the powers within a parliament of large parties, such as the Shinawatra Pheu Thai party, in favour of smaller ones and coalitions.
Last week, the Bangkok Post reported that all campaigns against the draft constitution will be banned – unless held with the explicit permission of the Electoral Commission.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam warned, “Organisers will hold such debates at their own risk. We have several laws to deal with them, such as the laws on defamation and public assembly.”
Wissanu also announced that only a straight majority of those voting would require the referendum to pass – not a majority of registered voters, thus lowering the barriers to a ‘yes’ vote.
He also revealed the government was doing away with a requirement that at least 80% of voters receive a copy of the constitution, arguing it would be available online and through “easy to understand infographics…advertisement and announcements”.
Perhaps most ominously, asked what would happen if the constitution was rejected by Thai voters, Wissanu said merely, “If it’s rejected, we’ll know what to do. Talking about it now may cause prejudice. Besides, we haven’t decided on the best course of action.”
Former PM denounces constitutional process as ‘crazy’
In a rare interview with the Financial Times last month, fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – deposed, like his sister Yingluck, by a military coup – denounced the draft as “crazy.”
Saying it would only entrench authoritarianism, Thaksin said, “I can’t imagine that this kind of constitution can be written in this manner in the 21st century. It’s as if we are in the 18th century.
“Instead of trying to write a crazy constitution, you had better have some discussion on what [people] would like to see.
“In the 21st century, no one respects the country with the junta regime.”
The consensus among all diplomats, academics and NGOs spoken to by EURACTIV is that the junta will at least hold on to power until King Bhumibol Adulyadej – now 88 and after 70 years on the throne, the world’s longest-serving head of state – passes away.
Professor Leyland calls that “the big imponderable”. Very few Thais have any memory of life before King Bhumibol – who is protected by some of the world’s most repressive ‘lese-majeste’ laws, making it an offence to “injure the dignity” of the monarch.
His son and heir apparent, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is rumoured to have led more of a playboy existence before returning to Thailand, and is held in less esteem than his father.
Professor Leyland says, “I think the worst-case scenario , that we’re all braced for, is the death of the king, and whether the crown prince is able to succeed, and how that’s handled – and nobody knows. That’s the big imponderable. From what I can gather the king remains extremely frail, and he could die at any moment.”
In the meantime, General Prayuth insisted as recently as January that elections would go ahead next year.
“Whatever happens, an election will take place in 2017.“I will search for any constitution for us to have an election.”
However, the military leader, famously testy with journalists and the press, when first confronted with journalists asking about an election after his military coup, simply said, “I have no time frame. It depends on situation. We will do it as soon as possible. That’s enough » before walking off stage and refusing more questions.
It is that response that many in the international community fear may still be closer to the truth.