Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at a news conference in Bangkok, August 2016.
Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters

On August 7, Thai voters opted to support military dictatorship. To be precise, they gave their approval to a new constitution that was drafted by a junta-appointed committee, which had seized power in a coup in May 2014. The charter proffers an all-appointed Senate with six reserved seats for senior security commanders, and provisions for a non-elected prime minister. With the approval of this document, the democratic reforms of the past 20 years were largely wiped out. The idea of firming up a strong parliamentary system, a core plank of the innovative 1997 “people’s constitution,” was now not simply forgotten, but was indeed banished.

The early August referendum had numerous parallels with a vote held on the 2007 draft constitution, which was also written under military tutelage but was far more liberal than the latest incarnation. Indeed, the entire situation felt familiar. Thailand has had more coups and constitutions since 1932 than any other country on earth: for reasons that remain somewhat baffling, every new military junta immediately abrogates the old constitution and begins the process of writing a completely fresh one. Unsurprisingly, in both the 2007 and 2016 referenda, pro-establishment areas of the country such as Bangkok, the central region, and the upper south voted mainly in support of the new constitutions, whereas voters in the northeast of Thailand—which is still mainly loyal to self-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—rejected the drafts. On both occasions, turnout was just below 60 percent.

Although the broad pattern of voting in 2016—61 percent Yes and 38 percent No—closely resembled the 58/42 split in 2007, the detailed results revealed some interesting changes. Only 22 out of 77 provinces fully rejected the draft, compared with 24 in 2007. However, another five provinces voted No to a supplementary question asking whether voters approved of a new procedure for selecting the prime minister by a joint session of parliament. This joint session would empower the 250-member unelected senate at the expense of the elected lower house. Approval ratings for the supplementary question were typically between three and five percent lower than for the constitution itself.

Another trend seen in the voting was declining polarization: in 2007, some southern provinces voted 90 percent in favor of the new constitution. But such levels of enthusiasm were not matched in 2016, perhaps because Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the regionally-dominant Democrat Party, had called on his supporters to reject the draft. At the same time, despite calls by pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party politicians to vote the charter down, the highest percentage of No votes in the northeast was below 60—much lower than the 75 percent rejection rates recorded in provinces such as Roi-Et in 2007. In short, Thailand is still terribly polarized and deeply divided along regional and ideological lines, but the polarization is now markedly less extreme.

Another striking development this summer was a strong swing against the draft in the Muslim-majority southern border provinces, where voters reacted angrily to clauses in the constitution that promoted Buddhism as a de facto national religion. A number of voters I met in Pattani on polling day were outraged by what they saw as the anti-Muslim tenor of the draft, and turned out en masse to oppose it. But this was a rare instance in which the content of the charter had a substantial impact on patterns of voting. For the most part, Thais simply did not read the new constitution; even if they had wanted to, copies were very hard to come by. They relied instead on media coverage and official propaganda aimed primarily at mobilizing a Yes vote.

Furthermore, recently enacted legislation made criticizing the draft constitution potentially illegal, resulting in sketchy and one-sided coverage. Politicians and activists who tried to raise awkward questions about the document found themselves subject to state harassment and even arrest.

Politicians and activists who tried to raise awkward questions about the document found themselves subject to state harassment and even arrest.

Provincial election commissions were supposed to organize informational seminars, inviting speakers who supported both sides of the ticket: however, permission to hold the seminars was forthcoming only at the very last minute, so most provinces held only a single session. To make matters worse, some provincial commissions barred former MPs and politicians from taking part, while in provinces such as Ubon Ratchathani, journalists were forbidden to broadcast the seminar proceedings. In some places, universities or civil society groups tried to hold their own events, but were met with resistance from conservative or excessively cautious university presidents or local bureaucrats.

Ultimately, the August 7 referendum generated rather less public interest than even the 59 percent turnout might suggest. Many rural voters were encouraged to vote by village headmen, who were in turn urged by district offices to help out their superiors and so prevent them from losing face. On the evening of the referendum, television coverage of the vote-counting was patchy: most Thais were instead tuned into the table tennis tournaments at the Rio Olympics.

And even those who voted Yes did not necessarily think highly of the draft constitution. For many, a positive vote simply meant an endorsement for the government to proceed with elections in late 2017, as a prelude for a return to some sort of political normalcy. Three days before the vote, one former Pheu Thai member of parliament from the northeast complained to me that his name was being taken in vain by cynical Yes campaigners, who were arguing “Just vote Yes and you can get the member back as your MP by next year.”

Another view, expressed to me by a woman in Pattani, was that constitutional matters were well above her pay grade. She had turned out to vote Yes as part of her civic duty, but the government in faraway Bangkok must decide these matters as it thought fit. She admitted to being completely unfamiliar with the contents of the constitution, and felt no need to find out any more.

Overall, the 2016 constitutional referendum illustrated less a wave of public enthusiasm for the draft, than a lukewarm endorsement of the military government. Skeptical about the durability of the document that was very unlikely to last more than a decade, those Thais who voted Yes did so in the hope that the country’s longstanding political tensions and more recent economic woes might soon begin to recede.

But almost no sooner had Prime Minister General Prayud Chan-ocha delivered a self-congratulatory speech welcoming the referendum result, when a series of bombs exploded across southern tourist resorts, killing four and injuring more than 30 people. Clearly, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order was in no position to guarantee neither peace nor order. Although the perpetrators and their precise motives have yet to be identified, the timing of the explosions, in the interlude between the referendum vote and the Queen’s birthday celebrations, was surely no coincidence. This was a deliberate attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the junta; it was a loud and resounding No. In short, whereas the 2016 result was superficially similar to that of 2007, space for dissent in Thailand has contracted substantially in the intervening years.

  • DUNCAN MCCARGO is professor of political science at the University of Leeds and visiting professor of political science at Columbia University.
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