Friday, December 15, 2006

Of Kings and Constitutions

HUA HIN, Thailand – The Thai people must love constitutions, they’ve made so many of them – 17 in all and another one in the works. That’s an average of one new charter every five years since the first one was promulgated in 1932.

They even have a national holiday, Constitution Day, to commemorate the first Constitution. It also, in a way, marks the first coup d’etat, since Thailand’s first constitution was born of the revolt that ended the absolute monarchy. Since then there has been a kind of synergy between coups and constitutions.

Constitution Day was Dec 11, and I celebrated it with a round of golf at the Royal Hua Hin Golf Course. For some reason it tickles me to know that it was on this very course that King Rama VII got word that of the coup in Bangkok.

In fact, Thai people don’t care much at all about written constitutions. But they really love their King. That was evident five days earlier when on Dec 6 the country celebrated King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birthday.

That was the occasion for another burst of yellow T-shirts (the royal color), bright lights and candlelight processions. Nobody held a candle for the 1997 Constitution that was consigned to the dust bin following the Sept 19 military takeover.

Thai people put their faith in personalities, not documents. And for the past several decades, that faith has not been misplaced. The reigning monarch, King Bhumibo, is perhaps the best advertisement in the world for modern monarchy.

He has intervened judiciously, yet positively in Thai politics during the 60 years he has been on the throne. The problem, of course, is that he is mortal. Indeed, the birthday celebrations underscored the fact that at 79 he has had a long life.

Since the Sept 19 coup, it seems as if the Thai elite have been pushing Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn to the forefront. He appears more and more on the pages of the newspapers, often pictured with his young son, a reassuring portrait of dynastic continuity.

What nobody can predict with any assurance is how he would serve, what capabilities or proclivities he would display should he ascend the throne (in Thailand the oldest son does not automatically succeed, and many here prefer his sister as reigning Queen.)

Still a modern country, one that aspires to be called a democracy, must have a constitution so the generals who took power and scrapped the previous charter have set in motion the writing of a new one.

That process is just getting underway. A list of about 2,000 potential drafters will be presented to the junta, which goes by the name Council on National Security. It will then be pared down to about 100 who will do the actual drafting then present the finished product to the people for ratification.

Even though the drafters have not yet been chosen, a certain pessimism has settled over the process. “This is the first time in recent memory that Thailand’s prospects of having a liberal and people-oriented charger are dim,” wrote the Bangkok Post in an editorial.

There is speculation that the new charter will incorporate certain illiberal elements, such as possibly introducing “functional” constituencies representing business or other sectoral interests in addition to directly elected members of the new parliament.

It is also expected that the new document will clarify and probably enhance the prerogatives of the monarch.

The 1997 constitution was often described as the best Thailand had ever had, indeed one of the most thought-out and liberal constitutions anywhere in the world. It was written with widespread input from people of all walks of life.

It also failed Thailand utterly.

The reasons are manifold, but they ultimately come down to that fact that Thais trust people more than they do the rule of law.

A Thai once asked me why the United States has never had a military coup. The answer was easy: “We revere our constitution as much as you revere your King.” (Interestingly these institutions are almost equally venerable – the ruling Chakri Dynasty was founded in 1782, the US Constitution was written in 1789.)

Thailand could have the best constitution ever written, but unless the government and the people abide by the commonly agreed rules, then the new 18th constitution will only be the prelude to the 19th and the 20th and the …


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