Thai junta PM embarks on day-long rant after criticism of constitution draft

Originally published at Asian Correspondent on February 3, 2016

The Thai military government’s intolerance towards dissent is nothing new. But its reactions against criticisms of the newest constitution draft – over a single day, no less – is a renewed display of insecurity by the junta.

Either you’re damned if you do or damned if you don’t. That’s the conundrum Thailand’s military government has put itself ever since it seized powers in the 2014 coup, suspended electoral democracy and almost every other aspect of political discourse and freedom that comes with it.

While its rule is undoubtedly authoritarian, the junta has promised to “reform” the political system, introduce a new constitution and then to hold new democratic elections in late 2015 – before postponing it to early 2016then delaying again to mid-2016 in order to accommodate for a public referendum on the constitution draft and then it got delayed yet another time to 2017 because that draft didn’t make it through the junta’s fully appointed ersatz-parliament and the whole drafting process had to begin all over again.

Last week, the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) (whose members were all replaced after the first draft failed) presented their second attempt to the public (PDF) which will be directly put up to a public referendum this summer. However, the contents and their intentions are largely the same as the previous one, aiming to restrict the powers of elected governments and have more unelected forces to easier intervene (we will address the contents of the draft in a future story).

To make matters more dubious, CDC chairman Meechai Ruchupan already hinted before the publication that elections could be further delayed beyond mid-2017 to accommodate more time for organic laws to be drafted and implemented. However, Thai junta leader and prime minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha later reaffirmed that democratic elections will actually take place in July next year, even if the constitution draft ist rejected in the public referendum – only then to change his mind on Monday again and widened out the timeframe to the whole of 2017.

That only further fueled suspicion and criticisms and seemingly this has all come to a head on Tuesday with a string of incidents and reactions that show how thin-skinned the junta is.

It started in the morning with the temporary detainment of Jatuporn Prompan, a prominent leader of the red shirts, a protest group that largely supports the toppled government of former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, the also deposed ex-PM Thaksin. The red shirts have announced last week that it would boycott the draft constitution, which is the likely reason for Jatuporn’s brief detainment – or “attitude adjustment” as the junta’s euphemistically calls it. He was released later in the afternoon.

At roughly the same time at Government House, prime minister Gen. Prayuth started lashing out at reporters, triggered by a question concerning the current constitutional drafting process and the delayed election date, saying things like “If you wanna vote, then go vote – you get the crappy ones [in the parliament], what are you gonna do then?” or “If the country goes down, don’t come blame me!”

All this venting took place while he was inspecting exhibition stands, making it for those involved a possibly very awkward photo-op (see video below). As he was sniffing a wooden chicken and reading some labels he continued yelling: “I understand everything because I read! Are you reading anything? Have you read anything that the government is doing something good?!” When a reporter asked him what he was actually referring to, Gen. Prayuth fired back with: “If you’re an idiot than look it up yourself!”

Meanwhile, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, the junta’s number 2, deputy-prime minister and defense minister, commented on Jatuporn’s brief detainment by saying that “constructive criticism” on the draft constitution is welcomed by the military government, but it must be “civilized”, not using such words like “dictatorship”, let the junta do its job, not “inciting unrest” – or else be “invited” for another round of attitude adjustment.

By the afternoon after the weekly cabinet meeting, PM Gen. Prayuth held another press conference and continued his tirade, claiming that nobody’s helping him whenever he gets pelted by criticism: “Why is nobody talking about my rights? (…) I have democratic rights, too! You don’t defend me, but you defend all these scoundrels?”

The reporters continued asking the still visibly agitated prime minister (see video below) with such questions like on the unclear sections of the draft (to which he replied “Why do you wanna know all this? You want this [draft] to fail, do you?!”) or on the criticisms against the draft that it would create further political conflict instead of resolving it (“Who is inciting conflict, apart from politicians, apart from the press?! Who else?! Tell me!!”).

He concluded his fiery press briefing by bemoaning the lack of trust he has by the public (despite a recent government poll attesting him a “98.9 per cent” approval rating, even though we all know better): “You don’t trust me at all after these two years? Haven’t you seen the work I’ve done? [slams podium] HUH?! You trust all the others, but not me!!”

Even for Gen. Prayuth, known for his often mercurial and sardonic outbursts in public, the constant criticism and skepticism towards the military junta’s constitutional draft process must have hit a nerve. It displays a distinct lack of confidence and insecurity in the process to go on ranting for almost a whole day.

It also explains why a spokesman for the military junta has come out reiterating that the junta “never prohibits criticism or expression of opinion,” but asks for discussions of the draft to be held “respectfully”. The thing about respect is that it is mutual – something that the Thai military government and its leader clearly does not show and Tuesday tirade was no exception.