Sunday’s referendum vote on a new constitution provides an opportunity for the Thai public to overhaul undemocratic practices, rather than further entrench them, Freedom House said today.
After a year of undemocratic rule following a military coup, leaders have proposed a new constitution to take the place of the old one, adopted in 1997, that was abrogated during the coup. While the proposed constitution is less restrictive than initially expected, it is still less democratic than the 1997 charter and would represent a step backward for the country.
“Freedom House encourages the Thai people to take advantage of Sunday’s referendum to push for a more, rather than less, democratic future,” said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of Freedom House.
At the same time as the new constitution is being debated, current shortcomings of Thai democracy have become increasingly apparent. A professor who asked his students their opinions on the role that Thailand’s monarchy plays in society has been accused of insulting the king. Thailand still has very strict lese-majeste laws that punish “defamation” or “insult” of the monarchy. These charges were invoked by the coup leaders as part of their justification for ousting Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister, from power last year.
“With the shape of Thailand’s democratic future in question, the government should take this opportunity to overturn these antiquated insult laws,” said Camille Eiss, Southeast Asia analyst for Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual survey of political rights and civil liberties worldwide.
“They not only violate freedom of speech—they also stifle important academic debate, the kind of debate the country may very well need to move back in the right direction.”While passage of the draft constitution would return the country to regular elections this year, the charter would give voters and political parties less direct influence. Additionally, the Senate would have fewer members, half of whom would be appointed rather than elected. The military would also have greater opportunity to remove the prime minister and influence the appointment of senators.
“If the old constitution allowed the former prime minister to overstretch his power, this new constitution gives the military too many liberties and leaves the country vulnerable to a future of military coups too similar to its past,” said Ms. Eiss. “Unfortunately, this constitution is largely the product of political rivalries, not the key to ensuring a democratic Thailand.”
As a result of last year’s coup, Thailand was ranked Not Free in the 2007 edition of Freedom in the World. The country received a rating of 7 (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 as the lowest) for political rights and a 4 for civil liberties.
Freedom House, an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world, has been monitoring political rights and civil liberties in Thailand since 1972.