After a relatively smooth start with a tremendous amount of goodwill and trust in the new Prime Minister and General Sonthi, the last few weeks have seen a growing sense of public frustration and dissatisfaction with the new regime. The CNS, the NLA, and the government have increasingly come under fire from a series of decisions and events despite some smart, sincere moves and hard work by the Prime Minister. There now seems to be an atmosphere of political uncertainty and the regimes fast-declining popularity is creating new risks for the country.
Thailand cannot afford to have another extra-constitutional change, even a bloodless one. Leaders of the current regime must recognize that if they fail, they will bear high costs. Yet those costs are nothing compared to the possible damage to the country and its key institutions. It is thus of paramount importance that confidence that return to normalcy will be swift and smooth is restored.
This can only be achieved through action that sets out a clear roadmap for the return to democracy. Both the government and the CNS must talk and act in a way that shows that they are here to restore democracy. They should start by seriously communicating with the public about the reasons cited to justify the coup, in particular, why the normal constitutional and democratic channels were not functioning. Two months have passed by with a sizeable if not the majority of the population still asking exactly what was wrong before the coup took place. The objective is not to convince people that the coup was necessary, since for many, a coup is never justified, but to show that the coup is not just a result of simple power play.
In fact, the most basic and fundamental ingredient of a democracy, namely, the rule of law, was clearly under threat. The fact that abuses of human rights contributed to the escalating violence especially in the South must be demonstrated. The facts surrounding the rampant corruption which went unpunished must be highlighted. Obviously it will take some time before all the relevant facts can be uncovered but all members of the new regime must show that they are engaged and determined to give top priority to redressing the wrongs of the old regime. Their failure to do so at the moment is what contributes most to public frustration. Refocusing on this will also enable the new regime to be on the offensive rather than being forced to be defensive from daily rumours of Thaksins return and the interpretation that martial law cannot be lifted because the regime fears open discussions on important issues.
As the facts become conclusive, any wrongdoing and wrongdoers, be they politicians, civil servants or business, must be strictly punished. There must not be compromises in the name of reconciliation or national unity. If we cannot establish that laws will be enforced and that no one is above the law, a return to elections and a new Constitution will be meaningless.
Equally important is the need to prove that the new power holders are not self-interested. Any move that suggests that those currently in power are no different from those they have accused can be very destabilizing. The recent appointment of state enterprise boards met with much criticism because of this with most unconvinced by the explanation that military personnel were appointed to tackle corruption and for security reasons. Such claim should now be proved by having the appointees announce clearly how long it would take to complete their mission and state their intention to leave once it is completed.
The most important task, however, is the drafting of the new Constitution. The process as stipulated in the provisional Constitution now looks far too long-winded. Given that CNS has very tight control over the composition of the drafting assembly, time being spent on the selection process seems like time wasted. It is time to speed up every stage of the drafting process. After all, the coup was really aimed at Thaksin, not the Peoples Constitution of 1997. Restoration of true democracy should be confirmed by moving quickly to obtain consensus on the following;
1. The new Constitution will at least guarantee the rights and freedom as stipulated in the 1997 Constitution. The government should immediately move ahead to pass legislations that the previous government failed to pass to make the Constitution truly effective. They include laws to protect honest civil servants, reporters and journalists, consumers, as well as laws to facilitate public hearings and the right to manage local natural resources.
2. The new Constitution will provide mechanisms for checks and balances as originally intended in the 1997 Constitution. It will avoid the pitfalls of the last 4-5 years by not granting absolute power to a single person or body and by closing all channels of partisan interference in these mechanisms. The government should also immediately move to grant the right to people to take corruption cases directly to court. Unlike what the law currently says, taxpayers are damaged parties from such corrupt practices as deliberately buying overpriced CTX machines.
3. The new Constitution will be no less democratic than the 1997 Constitution. Leaders must obtain the mandate to govern the country through elections and should have the power to carry out the policies and pledges that they have presented to the people to obtain power. We should not return to the days of weak ineffective governments tied up in a continuous process of political bargaining, but we should create strong but accountable and limited elected governments.
4. The new Constitution will get to grips with the longstanding problems associated with money politics and conflict of interests. Again, the government can take immediate steps to legislate on these matters. It might begin by putting into law limits on financial contributions to political parties and regulate on how money is spent by parties and politicians.
Once this is done, the process of drafting the Constitution will be swift with clear direction. We will then have true participation and engagement by the people in the most important mission of the current regime.
Such a roadmap is urgently needed. The problem with the current regime is not one of public relations. The public simply wants to see that the regime is clear-headed about its priorities. It is here to clean up the mess created in the last half decade, tackle immediate problems such as flood relief and stopping the escalating violence in the South, and provide a smooth and swift transition to return power to the people. It is not here to pursue its own agenda. The leaders of the government and the CNS have the credibility and public goodwill to achieve what is expected. They must now ensure that their teams and subordinates recognize their duties. The stakes for the country are too high and there is not much room to allow for errors.