Referendum Again!

5 06 2008

When the People’s Alliance for Democracy gathered 10 days ago today they reasoned that they disagreed with the government’s plan to amend the 2007 constitution – a wish to do away any wrong-doings the Thaksin’s government ever committed. Should the government succeed, we would witness the return to power of the most famous and perhaps the most disgusted prime minister Thaksin Shinnawatra.

After so much objection to the idea to amend the constitution, which went through a referendum while the country was under the military regime last year, Prime Minister Samak said he would leave it up to the people to decide at the referendum.

Referendum again? While I would not mind casting or abstain from voting, I do wish to know how the government would amend it. The government should offer a choice to its people: we go for a referendum to decide if we wish to use the 2007 constitution or a new one. Since there is no “new constitution” what choice do I as an ordinary citizen have? People who may decide to vote for the constitution amendment would perhaps do so just to show that they are against the military coup and rule. But, will it help to improve the current situation? What kind of a new constitution will we have? How could one be sure that it would be a better one compared to the one in 2007? Why can not we wait for a while until the government is more stable and then discuss about the possibility of amending the constitution! The government does not need to be in a hurry to do it.

Prominent lecturer Nidhi Eoseewong’s analysis in Thailand leading English newspaper Bangkokpost yesterday is very interesting as the paper discussed about a call for a referendum to amend the 2007 contstitution.

Change, Yes. Now, No.

By Nidhi Eoseewong

For Thai society, there is no worse moment to amend the constitution than now. Even though a consensus has been more or less reached about whether we should change the charter, some blood was shed on the streets. If we actually get down to rewriting the text, we could be butchering one another.

There are so many ideas, phrasing and wording to argue about. And the sad thing is that these differences of opinion are less about the relationship between the institutions of governance than the political objectives of different power groups.

We might remind ourselves that we wrote the constitution in the first place so that we could have a set of rules we can agree to and solve a conflict peacefully. Today, however, we are using the charter as a forum to achieve political goals. It’s no surprise that the raw power of fists, sticks, stones and bottles has been hurled around in this forum.

Unless we can sort out the mixing up of the end and the means in this volatile conflict, the squabbling won’t go away. That is why the referendum idea is appeasing no one and calming nothing.

I had pointed out since the 2007 constitution was not promulgated that it had many flaws and should not have been put into use. Or that it should be amended after it was voted in.

But faced with a referendum question of whether to allow it to be changed or not, I find myself not knowing how to answer.

And I know why. The thing is the heart of this issue is not about “whether” the charter should be amended but “how”.

If the amendment process is not an accountable and legitimate one, or is viewed as too rushed, the rewritten version could end up with more flaws than what it already has. Don’t forget that we have had a few constitutions that were much worse than the 2007 one.

Without knowing what to change and how it would be changed, nobody can make an informed choice should a referendum be held. The votes, both for or against, will be political ones, the result of which wouldn’t be accepted by the opposing groups and thus wouldn’t help lessen the conflicts.

None of the draft amendments that have been proposed so far have been publicised, nor have they been discussed widely in public. There have been no discussions why certain sections should be changed and why others should not. The discussions should be allowed to continue until the public has enough information to make a choice on their own. It’s this process that is necessary, that must be done, before a referendum is held.

Amid the many ideas that have been floated to break the apparent impasse, the one that I agree with is the proposal to set up a committee to study the issue. I would like to add that the committee should not consider only legal aspects. It should start by studying what are the “problems” in Thai society that can be effectively tackled by mutually agreed “rules”. Then, it should disseminate the ideas and find ways for the public to participate in discussing them.

Although some of the premises on which the 1997 charter was made still hold true today; some of the answers it provided proved to be ineffective. Not only were independent bodies prone to being crippled by a very strong government, but an attempt by the public to provide checks and balances was also dysfunctional.

The 10 years that lapsed after it was written also brought with it a number of new challenges that a charter must address.

For example, will a proposal to set up a “special administration zone” in the restive south go against the constitution’s stipulation of Thailand as an “indivisible Kingdom”? Have we really sorted out what should be the status of Buddhism in the constitution?

The process of constitution amendment is too complex to be settled by a simplistic, yes-or-no event of a referendum. And it is the “process” that counts. It is the process – one that is inclusive and open to every group – that could convince people that we will be having a new constitution that is good, fair and effective.

And even though we have arrived at what the challenges of today’s Thai society are and what shape the new constitution should be in to cope best with them, there is another question of who we should trust to do the rewriting. I think a number of Thais would agree with me in not trusting parliament on this matter.

MPs are authorised to do certain tasks for the public, that is true. Charter amendment is not one of them, however.

While the idea of having another constitution assembly is appealing, it also fails to resolve current conflicts. The problem is no matter how the assembly members are selected – even though they were voted in by the public like members of parliament – the other side would still view them as being biased or belonging to a political party.

At this juncture, I see no plausible way to end this conflict other than to allow the whole society to take part in drafting the new charter themselves. We will have to resort to having a public hearing on each important aspect of the constitution, for example how the electorate should be divided? One-person-one-vote? Small constituencies or large ones?

I hope that the process of arguing and discussing these important issues regarding the constitution would divert society to a more reasonable conflict than the trading of accusations that we are facing at present. We can have legal hands do the actual rewriting of the charter, but the concept must come from the results of public hearings.

It is going to be a long process. I actually hope that the length of time we will have to spend on this will reduce the rather senseless bickering we are having today. Changing or drafting a constitution demands a more amicable ambience than now. There will be so many things to contend with and debate. A friendly atmosphere would ensure we can disagree with respect.

Once we have the newly rewritten draft charter, we will still need a bit more time to allow the public to debate its merits and drawbacks. After that, the new draft can be put up to a referendum. When that time comes, the public will have a clear choice between the current 2550 constitution and the new draft. Neither of them will be perfect. Each person will have to see for him or herself which one is the better charter.

As long as the all-important “process” of constitutional amendment is carried on in a rash and hasty way, people will suspect that it’s only done to serve vested, personal purposes.

There is no way such a shabby process should be allowed to break through.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: