Yet another constitution for Thailand. In the last 84 years, Thailand has experienced 19 coups and now its 20th constitution. Looking to cut to the chase this time around, the military drafted a document that gives its leaders final say over the political future of the country—and it passed in a August 7 vote with over 60% support. These 5 facts explain what you need to know about the Land of Smiles.
1. Cycle of Coups
Thai politics have become predictably cyclical over the past decade. An anti-establishment political party gets elected, that party gets purged, the military installs a caretaker government pending elections, the military rewrites the election rules to ensure its desired result, elections are held again—and an anti-establishment party wins again. Rinse and repeat. This time a new referendum and constitution were thrown into the mix, but the cumulative effect is the same. Since its absolute monarchy ended in 1932, Thailand has rarely managed more than a few years of governance between coups.
Beyond the obvious political chaos, there are real costs to consider. Across the world, coups cost an economy an average of 2.1 percent of GDP in the year they take place, and 1.3 percent in the year following. Sometimes a coup signals the economy wasn’t doing well to begin with, but the damage in Thailand is still considerable, particularly when you multiply the effects by 19. Another study calculates that coups slash incomes by an average of 7 percent. It’s a vicious cycle to be sure, even if the frequency of these coups have made the Thai economy more resilient than most.
2. The Military
In modern Thailand, the ‘establishment’ comprises the military, the judiciary, the monarchy, the civil service and the Democrat Party, its political mouthpiece. By far the most active of these players is the military. It seized power in May 2014 and has spent the last two years gearing up for this week’s referendum. The new constitution empowers the military to select every one of the 250 members of the Thai senate; until now, the military had been appointing just under half of them. It also gives the military power to issue emergency decrees without parliamentary consent. In short, it gives the military veto power on all political questions.
The referendum and constitution passed with 61 percent of the vote, though turnout was just 59 percent. This was by design. In the run-up to elections, the military passed the Referendum Act, draconian measures intended to stymie any serious political debate about the vote. Scores of activists were arrested in the run-up to the balloting, and the media was banned from spreading “false information,” with all the ambiguity that suggests. It worked.
3. “Red Shirts”
This recent round of political upheaval centers on a billionaire telecom magnate-turned-populist politician named Thaksin Shinawatra. In 2001, Thaksin sought votes from farmers and the rural poor, known as “red shirts,” by providing them low-interest loans, debt relief and universal healthcare so heavily subsidized that a trip to the doctor would cost 75 cents. He was ousted in a military coup in 2006 triggered by corruption allegations (eventually costing him his controlling stake in the Manchester United football club), but kept his movement alive through the Puey Thai (PT) party helmed by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister in 2011. She was then ousted by the 2014 military coup.
Thaksin supporters were the principal force behind the 39 percent “no” vote in the referendum. But they didn’t turn out in the numbers needed, which isn’t surprising given the Referendum Act. Without formal education campaigns and vigorous political debate, you can’t realistically expect rural farmers to read a 94-page constitution, let alone understand its nuances and implications.
4. “Yellow Shirts”
Opposite the red shirts stand the “yellow shirts”—named after the country’s yellow flag—a loose confederation of monarchists, nationalists and the urban middle class who have made anti-corruption their rallying cry. The military seized on this, referencing corruption no less than 46 times in the constitution. And Thailand really does have a problem with endemic corruption; according to Transparency International, Thailand scores a 38-out-of-100 (where 100 is very clean) on corruption, making it the 76th least-corrupt country in the world. The “yellow shirts” face plenty of corruption allegations of their own, but you can never go wrong by campaigning against corruption.
The divide between red and yellow shirts is really more socio-economic than ideological. The urban, relatively affluent “yellow shirts” fear that populists like Thaksin give voters in the countryside too much power; rural “red shirts” fear that without a PT government, their voices will go unheard by the traditional establishment. This divide has driven Thai politics for generation. But this particular coup has a more immediate trigger.
That trigger is the deteriorating health of popular 88-year old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch at nearly 70 years. Plagued for decades by fractious politics, the monarchy has stood out as one of the few unifying elements of Thai society, and King Bhumibol is particularly beloved. The king is also the figurehead commander of the Thai armed forces and approves any new Thai government, eventually giving both coups staged against the Shinawatra siblings his blessing.
King Bhumibol’s failing health forced the military’s hand; they want to protect their longer-term interests within Thai society, and this constitution is an attempt to do just that no matter who succeeds him. Then there’s also the matter of the Crown Property Bureau, a royal trust with an estimated $53 billion in assets. Having prime ministers as outspoken and confrontational with the military as the Shinawatras makes their utilization of the royal trust that much harder. It’s pretty clear that the referendum has bought Thailand some time and stability in the short term, but if Thai history is any indication, no one should get too comfortable.