Democracy must secure minorities' rights

Published: October 10, 2015 1:19 am


Newspaper section: News


          Thailand has more experience with drafting constitutions than any other country, with what should be foundational documents again reverting to ritual exercises in rhetoric. The task of the new Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) under Meechai Ruchupan must be to rectify this situation and build in ""thick democracy"" - multiple interlocking layers of democratic checks and balances to ensure transparency and honesty.

          This is especially a problem since Thailand's most successful political party has warned that any of its members cooperating with the junta must resign. The only way to overcome this and acquire legitimacy is to create multiple direct participatory and deliberative avenues for a sufficient mass of other parties and citizens to contribute to the constitution.

          This can be achieved by the CDC opening up a  platform for citizens, NGOs and political parties to contribute, much as the civil society community did via its Prachamati website for the last draft constitution, with people able to vote on individual clauses.

          However, a further complication is the extent to which minority peoples, typically with less access to the internet and less voice, can contribute. This is why the military regime must allow groups of over five people to assemble to organise submissions to the CDC, whether they be clauses, declarations, or even entire organic laws, providing they are meeting for the purpose of constructive contributions.

          How Thailand's minorities are treated in the new constitution is crucial to state efforts to tackle the red versus yellow dichotomy which polarises Thai society and factionalises its politics, as the fault lines which divide the country have ethnic aspects, such as social stigma, which must be healed if reconciliation is to materialise.

          Thailand still has not recognised many indigenous peoples as citizens which has robbed them of the right to assemble and organise politically. There is nothing to fear; the mountain peoples tend to vote Democrat. Moreover, the other minorities in the North and Northeast, by organising politically, could form alternative parties and so contribute to a third force in politics - or at the least compel the main parties in these regions to act more democratically.

          If the CDC constitutionally recognises the indigenous peoples, it must also endorse Thailand's ethnolinguistic groups regarding language education. Language education policy in Thailand is such that only Thai is recognised and resourced in the national curriculum. The result is that students in the deep South, where Yawi is the community language, score lowest in the country in national testing, just below the Thai Lao of the Northeast.

          For nearly a decade now, the Office of the Royal Society has been promoting intercultural multilingual education and has overseen successful pilot studies in the regions. It also sponsors a draft National Language Policy which recognises that guaranteeing support for minority languages will improve educational attainment and safeguard indigenous knowledge-based systems and cultural products in the face of globalisation. Integrating this policy in the constitution as an organic law will help address the country's pathetic functional illiteracy rate, which is as high as one third of Thai youth, and so contribute to a more educated - and democratic - populace.

          As regards minorities and resource exploitation, the junta is presently fasttracking approval for mining and initiating a full-blown resource extraction-based growth model. This means it is using resource extraction, such as of potash, gold and natural gas, to bolster the state's income. However, the majority of the concessions are in ethnic minority areas where the populace do not support the junta, nor do they accept the results of environmental impact assessments (EIAs) organised by the junta via the expedited process. This has led to violent clashes and the treatment of mining sites as restricted military areas.

          In fact, civil groups have their own version of the draft Minerals Bill, one which emphasises a stronger form of EIAs as well as the ""polluter pays"" principle and which should be included as an organic law in the constitution. In addition, if Thailand is serious about meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and promoting His Majesty's sufficiency economy philosophy to endorse New Developmentalism concepts such as socially just and resilient green dynamic growth, it should build into the law the concept of partnering with external organisations to ensure independent auditing of EIAs and of ongoing projects.

          Finally, democratising the minority areas means revisiting the issue of appointed governors and seriously entertaining initiatives such as regional assemblies. Appointed provincial governors are simply top-down mechanisms for control which can be abused as satraps. Simply stating that provinces are ""not ready"" for elected governors discriminates in favour of Bangkok, which is an autonomous administrative area with an elected governor, at the expense of provinces like Chiang Mai.

          By creating democratically-appointed governorships, the political scene is reversed, creating the needed impetus for participatory democracy so that people outside Bangkok can also hold influential people to account. If elected governors are accepted, so can the concept of multiple representatives per province, as in the US state system. The aim then should be for them to organise regionally to address minority concerns from the grassroots up, as in the UK's Welsh Assembly. This would create an administrative ""third force"".

          Recognising the minorities provides the building blocks for a sufficiently ""thick democracy"" to prevent an endless coupand-constitution drafting cycle.

          John Draper is Project Officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme, College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa, Phd, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.