2019 was a year when so much happened, yet simultaneously nothing happened.
Clichés are always risked when quoting Charles Dickens, but I found it difficult to avoid this one from A Christmas Carol when describing Thailand in 2019: “It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”. There were moments of rays of hope, when change seemed possible; we end the year seemingly stuck in the same rut as before.
The year started off with a feeling of change in the air. It was the first general election in years. We all knew, of course, that the appointed senate meant there was little possibility of change, that an outcome had been predetermined and no amount of electoral input could change it. But it still felt like a welcome change from the political stasis of the past five years, to once again see public deliberation and intellectual discussion, to have an opportunity for the people to weigh in on the affairs of the state.
And we end it precisely where we were before, any excitement generated from the election having transformed into renewed cynicism, all sense of change morphed into a feeling of an even uglier, more heated stagnation. Indeed, Thailand this year encapsulated the defining characteristics of the decade in Thai politics. Deepening polarization. Conservative retrenchment. Democratic failure. For everything that happened in 2019, none of this has changed.
The rules still create a deeply uneven political playing field that has allowed those who do not deserve it to remain in power. A political party that had the guts to challenge the status quo is on the brink of dissolution. A return to street protests look unavoidable. Against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy, one cannot be blamed for coming to the blindingly obvious conclusion that things, indeed, look grim.
But I am not a naturally pessimistic person. And so with this sunny disposition I will attempt to put at least a somewhat positive spin on the political developments of the year.
Historian Nidhi Eoseewong developed the concept of a ‘Thai cultural constitution’ in an essay in 1985, and the full piece is well worth a read. He wrote:
It is this political culture which is the true supreme arrangement of power relations. Or, to put it another way, political culture is the state’s true constitution. This constitution cannot be torn up, however many tanks are used. Other laws, ministerial orders, and regulations cannot contravene the provisions in the political culture or in this true constitution. So let this true constitution be called the cultural constitution. This cultural constitution cannot be “drafted,” but arises from the long-term experience of the society over centuries...[Thailand] has a cultural constitution which is sacred and inviolable (but gradually changes all the time), and it has a constitution drafted by servants of the military which has to be torn up from time to time (whenever it is torn up, the old servants are ready to draft it anew).
Amendment of the 2017 constitution, at this point in time, seems unlikely and impossible. But what the government cannot stop, no matter how hard it tries, is the changing ‘cultural constitution’. And 2019 was certainly a year in which Thailand’s cultural constitution has seen change where the written constitution has not.
When I worked on the 2015 Constitution Drafting Committee’s public relations team, one of the key concepts we promoted was the need to turn “people” into “citizens” — with rights and responsibilities to probe and scrutinize the state. The 2015 draft constitution was never enacted, but its ideals have inadvertently turned closer to reality this year. People turned out to vote. They ceaselessly comment and criticize the government online. Young people are more engaged. Ordinary citizens are turning up to discussions and workshops on constitutional revision. For the first time in years, a mass protest was held. The citizen is back, even if the state does not want it.
More and more people are now turning against the idea of an interventionist military. The rallying call of “democratize, demilitarize, decentralize” has resonated with many and driven them to the ballot box. The need for military conscription has been questioned more than ever. Political tultelage under the armed forces, a concept that had appealed to many in the crisis-stricken atmosphere of 2014, is no longer acceptable even to many conservatives.
The government can stop constitutional revision for now, but it cannot stop political culture from changing. While those in government still look at the world through the lens of the Cold War, those outside increasingly see it from the perspective of the 21st century. Preventing a constitution from being written is easy, but a cultural paradigm shift could very well be unstoppable. The cultural constitution cannot be easily scrapped.
This does not mean, of course, that political change is imminent, nor that it will be easy to achieve. But the state of politics today is likely as fragile as the current coalition government of 20 parties. Quo vadis? We don’t know. But “the flow of the river is ceaseless”, the Japanese writer Kamo no Chomei one wrote, “and its water is never the same.” Impermanence was the sense this quote was meant to convey, and it is also the sense that historians of the future may also get looking back at 2019.