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Thai Voters Approve Military-Backed Constitution


In Thailand, it looks as if the ruling military will keep calling the shots for a lot longer. Voters in Thailand today overwhelmingly approved a new constitution drafted by the military-led government. One, critics say, enshrines the military's role in politics for years to come. Michael Sullivan joins us now from Bangkok to discuss today's vote. Michael, a big victory for the military. Why so big?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Well, it seems to me that the majority of those who voted feel the military has made good on its pledge to maintain order and political stability since the coup and trust the military to keep that process on track with this new constitution, a constitution that ensures the next government will be largely controlled by appointed, not elected officials. And it's the military that will do much of the appointing.

SUAREZ: Why do you think so many people would vote to essentially dilute democratic rule?

SULLIVAN: A couple of reasons, Ray, I mean, one we just mentioned - stability - right? In the past decade, there's been a seemingly endless cycle of political instability, street protests, political violence that people grew tired of, but maybe there's another reason. And that is that opponents of the proposed constitution never really got a chance to make their case.

And many Thais I spoke to said they really didn't know what was in the constitution. The military allowed no public rallies against it, no real public discussion or criticism of it, and those who dared faced 10 years in jail. So the military clearly stacked the deck, and the house always wins.

SUAREZ: At the same time, the military government, as so many of them do around the world, promised that it would transition back to people's rule. What happens next? What's in the mechanics here?

SULLIVAN: Well, the prime minister former army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha says they'll be a new election next year and that now means that an elected lower house and an appointed upper house will be chosen. And the military will do the appointing of the latter, and there will also be at least six seats set aside for the military in that upper house.

And all of this is designed to prevent any one political party from becoming too powerful, which has happened in the past. And it seems aimed specifically at the political machine of the Shinawatra clan, the populist prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was deposed by the military in 2006, and it was his sister's government that was the one removed by the military two years ago.

SUAREZ: So how will the Shinawatra supporters, which is, after all, millions of Thais, react?

SULLIVAN: Yeah, that's unclear. I mean, they've been pretty quiet since the coup. But, again, speaking out against it, you know, isn't really a good idea. Those who do so are often invited for attitude adjustment - the military's term not mine - and I don't see the military suddenly allowing them any more political space.

But other critics who aren't Shinawatra supporters, just, you know, democracy activists are obviously disappointed with today's vote because they say this is clearly a big step backward for Thai democracy.

SUAREZ: Does this latest version of military-backed rule enjoy the support of the king? He's a popular figure. Would we even know he's the world's longest reigning monarch, 88, and said to be in declining health?

SULLIVAN: He is in failing health, and I've seen no statement from the king. But that's not a surprise. He spends most of his time in the hospital and doesn't really speak in public anymore, though, he's still deeply revered by most Thais. Having said that, the military has long presented itself as the defender of the monarchy, and it's clearly worried about the transition after the king leaves the scene. His son, the crown prince, isn't nearly as popular and some here say one of the reasons for the coup two years ago was to help ensure that the transition goes smoothly.

SUAREZ: Michael Sullivan joined us from Bangkok. Good to talk to you.

SULLIVAN: And you, Ray. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
Ray Suarez