Voice and the Thai Referendum

A Thai student holds a poster reading "vote no = no coup " at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Thai voters on Sunday overwhelmingly approved a new junta-backed constitution that lays the foundation for a civilian government influenced by the military and controlled by appointed - rather than elected - officials. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

A Thai student holds a poster reading “vote no = no coup ” at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016. Thai voters on Sunday overwhelmingly approved a new junta-backed constitution that lays the foundation for a civilian government influenced by the military and controlled by appointed – rather than elected – officials. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

A few days before Thailand’s constitutional referendum this August, I watched as government-sponsored “get out and vote” ads flashed across screens in one of the stations along Bangkok’s Skytrain public transit system. After a battery of promotional advertisements and rallies, voters turned out on the seventh day of the month to decide whether or not the country’s current military junta should play a role — a significant one — in the future of Thai democratic institutions. When results were announced the next day, a decisive 61 percent of voters supported the military’s constitutional proposal, one that guaranteed strong military involvement in the government for the foreseeable future. However, even before voters first reached the polls, commentary — both from within Thailand and from outside — questioned the validity of the referendum’s results. Preceding the election, the controlling military junta largely silenced opposition; bans were placed on open opposition of the draft constitution, protesters were arrested, and online dissent was censored. Moreover, external monitoring was banned, and rumors circulated online that the regime was arresting those expressing a desire to reject the draft. By removing the most powerful opposition voices in play, the controlling junta worked quietly to guarantee favorable results while lending the referendum an air of legitimacy.

As a result, in the run-up to the election, important voices were lost. The most obvious of these was the voice of established opposition parties and groups playing the role of government watchdog, helping voters make a more informed decision about the referendum. Other, less obvious, oppositional voices were likely lost as well: the voices of independent citizens criticizing the referendum online — another independent source of information open to voters in other countries, but closed to referendum voters. Even less obvious were the silent voices of citizens who refused to turn out due to frustration at the vote. The ruling junta officially aimed for a turnout of eighty percent, using events and television advertisements to promote the election, banning alcohol sales and bars to force voters to the polls, and making election day a  national holiday. Still, election commission estimates put turnout at only 55 percent, well below official targets.

Voices were silenced not only by the ruling junta. Even removing the military’s influence over the vote, there should have existed a large pool of Thai voters dissatisfied with the pre-junta democratic regime. Perhaps this is only natural in a country that has experienced twelve successful coups since its constitutional monarchy began in 1932. This shaky system, combined with widespread pre-junta allegations of corruption, dissatisfaction with the ruling party, and the party’s own use of the military to put down protests largely influenced voters, naturally drove some to vote for a more stable government style. However, Western media commentary — with some exceptions — largely glossed over this difficult history. They thus amplified the military’s influence on the results and either insinuated that draft supporters were a minority, or (perhaps condescendingly) intimated that Thai voters did not choose correctly.

Other groups attempted to express their voice through the referendum vote, but were also largely left out by Western media commentary. Except for the three southernmost provinces, Thailand’s southern provinces overwhelmingly voted in favor of the draft constitution. While Thailand is officially a Buddhist country, the southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani are majority Muslim. Residents of these provinces speak both Pattani Malay and Thai, and differ in culture from their more culturally “Thai” neighbors to the north. These provinces were also added to Thailand only recently; until the 18th century, they formed their own sultanate, becoming a tributary of the Kingdom of Siam in 1785, followed by annexation in 1902. Separatist movements and insurgencies have flared and subsided since then, with tensions growing again surrounding attacks in July and September of this year. Yet, voices on both sides of the separatist violence were missing in Western media commentary, following a longstanding trend of Western ignorance toward the issue.

While voice plays an important part in everyday life, issues pertaining to the interplay of voice and elections are particularly pertinent. Inevitably, certain voices are always slightly muted or emphasized, and some are even ignored; yet, the Thai referendum of August 2016 saw issues pertaining to voice take an entirely new shape. Military-influence amplified the voice of one group, while entire swaths of population were forcibly muted, or stayed silent for their own protection. By the same token, Western media commentary of the results largely silenced the same group that the military amplified, and continued to ignore important voices. Now, as Thailand moves into the next phase of implementation of the military’s draft constitution, voice will continue to play an important role in the long-term development of Thai democracy.

About Author

Anthony Volk

Anthony Volk is a staff writer for the Harvard International Review.