Since being unceremoniously turfed out of office by a military coup in May 2014, Yingluck Shinawatra has seldom made public comment. In fact, her silence since the generals seized power has most notably been broken by a simple social media post, highlighting the quiet rural life she now favours. And it is easy to see why she has shied away from the limelight. The Bangkok junta is waging a determined campaign to thoroughly discredit Shinawatra and remove her from the public scene for good. Shinawatra is perhaps the generals’ most high-profile and potent target, but she is hardly alone. The witch hunt against her is part of a wider crusade by General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government to stamp out opposition and dissent. And the generals have recently opened a new front in this reprehensible campaign, railroading passage for a new constitution which would endanger Thai democracy. So serious is the threat that Yingluck has spoken out. Her concerns are as accurate as they are timely. Having bravely raised her voice, the world must now sit up and take note.
After all, Yingluck is hardly in an ideal position to confront the regime. The junta is currently preparing to play prosecution, judge and jury against her over an allegation so absurd as to turn the rule of law on its head. She has been accused of negligence and “abuse of authority” over a rice subsidy scheme which she pioneered as prime minister in 2011. With Thailand leading international rice exports, Yingluck sought to raise global rice prices by paying local farmers above market rates. The scheme ultimately flopped as exports dropped. Nonetheless, it was a bold economic move, carried out with the full consent and support of a democratically-elected government and a legislature selected by the Thai people. The policy may have been ill-judged, but any suggestion that it was untoward or illegal is an insult to the very nature of government, an affront to democratic legislative procedure. Yet, if found guilty of these trumped-up charges, Shinawatra could face ten years behind bars. The legal proceedings against her are already surrounded by an air of farce, with her defence team having seen 72 pieces of evidence rejected without explanation.
It is in this perilous context that Yingluck’s recent critique of the draft constitution must be considered. She can hardly afford to antagonise the powers that be, but such is the gravity of the situation that Yingluck recently voiced her concern that the new charter is “not truly democratic.” Posting on social media, she has strongly challenged the constitution’s establishment of an unelected National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee, which would effectively overrule any elected body as a safeguard against a potential national ‘crisis.’
And this single clause is hardly an isolated danger. In fact, the overwhelming impact of the new constitution would be to codify unassailable military power. If approved, the charter will permit the appointment of an entirely unelected head of government, such as Prayuth. Meanwhile the Senate, the supposed legislative voice of the people, would effectively be appointed by the very same generals who seized power last year and still lack any semblance of a popular mandate. Meanwhile, the Senate would be authorised to add another layer of despotic power, appointing a Constitutional Court which would have the final say on legislative matters and public appointments.
Thailand’s military rulers are playing a game of gentle, yet devastating deception. They are inverting the tools of democratic rule for their own ends. Just as they are hijacking the legal process to accuse Yingluck of illegality, they are appropriating the very constitution tasked with safeguarding freedom in order to launch a full throttled assault on democracy. The junta is leaving no stone unturned to preserve its grip on power.
And so as a prominent opponent of the generals, Yingluck’s fate is inextricably tied with that of Thai democracy. Alongside her brother Thaksin, the Shinawatras pose the most powerful political threat to Bangkok’s generals. Between them, Thaksin and Yingluck have triumphed in every Thai election since 2001. The Pneu Thai Party, which is closely identified with the Shinawatras maintains a strong base of support, particularly in Thailand’s rural heartland.
Attacks on the Shinawatras have become a significant element of Prayuth’s effort to eliminate opposition once and for all. Opponents are being increasingly targeted by legislation designed to protect the country’s royal family against defamation. While there were only two such pre-coup cases, the ‘lese majeste’ laws are now being wielded against regime critics at an alarming rate, with at least fifty current prosecutions underway. Thaksin himself has fallen foul of this purge, accused of “endangering national security” for having suggested on South Korean television that Privy Counsellors supported last year’s coup. With equal absurdity, Yingluck was threatened with prosecution for having reinstated Thaksin’s passport during her time in office. What actual law may have been breached remains a mystery. However, the two cases illustrate the lengths of legal fantasy to which the regime will resort in order to shut down opposition.
And so, it is little surprise that Section 111 (15) of the draft constitution includes a breath-taking clause which would exclude the “unusually rich” from elected office. Any financial test is surely anathema to free and fair voting. The true purpose to outlawing wealthy candidates is a thinly veiled attempt to ban the Shinawatras, whose accumulated fortune is a matter of record. Barring Yingluck and Thaksin from the public sphere would send a powerful message to all regime critics – Opposition, and with it Thai democracy is a thing of the past.
Yingluck clearly has more reason than most to speak out against the constitution. Thaksin too has understandably added his voice against the charter. However, they must not remain lone public opponents of a code which threatens the lifeblood of Thai democracy. World leaders must send a clear and unequivocal message to the junta. A constitution which guarantees free elections, a meaningful opposition and personal liberty is a precondition to membership of the family of nations. The Western flagbearers of international democracy must help salvage liberty for the Thai people. The Shinawatras have pushed open the door, the world must now amplify their message.Debates.eu