Thailand is nearing the end of extended efforts to write a national constitution – known as Constitution 20/2, as it is the second shot at putting together the 20th charter since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932.
Thais do many things very well – from cuisine to culture to graphic design. Governance is not on the list.
In that same period the country has experienced 21 coups – 12 were successful and nine failed. Thailand has had periods of electoral governance but authoritarian rule is the norm, not an exception.
The result of the constitution drafting and redrafting will be that Thailand will continue to have some form of authoritarian rule. The generals in charge of the country are determined to extend their influence beyond the reintroduction of an electoral system, scheduled for the second half of next year.
Precisely how that will be done is playing out now, in discussions between the Government, led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and the Constitutional Drafting Committee it appointed last year.
General Prayut took power in May 2014, as anti-government protests paralysed Bangkok’s city centre and government operations.
The protests were aimed at ending what leaders called the Thaksin regime – government by parties backed by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Thaksin was a corrupt populist (although Thailand has a history of corruption and even now ranks poorly on Transparency International’s index of perceived corruption).
He was ousted in a coup in 2006. But political parties he backed won four elections between 2001 and 2011.
The protests that blockaded Bangkok lasted six months. But the government would not resign and the demonstrators could not force it out. Meanwhile, people on both sides of the political divide had been killed or injured in the protests.
In May 2014 Prayut, then army commander, broke the deadlock by staging a coup. He stepped in, he said, to stop the violence, end corruption and embark on a process of long-term reform.
The underlying reasons were:
> A desire for the military to be in charge during the inevitable royal transition. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 88 years of age and his health is poor. Thais revere him; he has reigned since 1946 so most Thais have not known any other king. The transition will be a time of immense sadness and uncertainty.
> The need to finish the job started by the protesters and neuter the Thaksin regime. Thaksin and his political party are relatively quiet but they are still there, waiting for the return of popular elections.
And the army wants to thwart him.
The regime first promised elections for late 2015 or early 2016. The current scheduled timing is July or August 2017.
Elections, however, require a new constitution, as coup makers routinely scrap existing charters.
The new document has to be acceptable to the military. It also has to be supported by the people, who will vote on it in a referendum.
The Government set up a constitution drafting committee in November 2014 but the junta’s National Reform Council rejected the initial draft.
The sticky issue was a provision for a body called the National Committee on Reform and Reconciliation Strategy, which would have been dominated by the military and would have been able to exercise executive and legislative power during times of national crisis.
It was a reach too far.
A second constitutional drafting commission is now due to report to the Government on March 29.
Its first draft, made public in January, would extend the power of the military until the first sitting of a new parliament. It would also allow for a non-MP, an outsider, to be prime minister.
The military, however, wants to be able to wield supervisory power for a further five years. As a parliamentary term would be four years, this would enable them to exercise control into the second period of elected government.
The junta has proposed that the senate be appointed and its members to include senior military and police leaders. The senate would have the power to launch censure motions against the government.
The military would have the power of veto and intimidation.
The regime specifically wants to make sure future governments follow its reform policies.
The junta also suggests each constituency should return three members, with voters choosing only one candidate. This would make it difficult for a single party to win a majority.
The pivotal issue is whether the head of the drafting committee, lawyer Meechai Ruchupan, accepts the junta’s plans.
General Prayut has said he thinks it is likely the committee will agree. If not, he said, he would keep sending the proposals back until they did.
Mr Meechai’s public response to the junta’s plans has been correct but unenthusiastic.
The Government, however, is confident it will get a document it finds acceptable. It is arranging for soldiers and military students to go into local communities before the referendum to explain the benefits of the draft.
And it will allow no organised dissent. The law against public gatherings will remain in force. The only criticism allowed will be in forums the Government arranges.
General Prayut has pledged elections will be held next year even if the referendum fails. Logically, this means the Government would be ready to impose its preferred constitution.
The future holds continued authoritarian rule in Thailand. Situation normal.
Cameron Douglas is a businessman who travels to Bangkok frequently