The voters of Thailand have approved a new constitution, proposed by the ruling military junta, in a referendum. Though the content of the constitution itself and the ongoing process of enactment are not exactly democratic, it will be one step toward a peaceful return of power by the military government to civilian rule. Let us hope that the new constitution will become a foothold for overcoming the political turmoil and social divides that have plagued the country over the past decade.
Once the new constitution comes into effect, the military regime plans to hold a general election as early as 2017 to hand over power to a civilian government. But Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of the current military government, is apparently seeking to retain authority even after the formation of a nominally civilian government, as indicated by a number of provisions in the new constitution. One provision effectively allows the junta to appoint nearly all upper house members of the National Assembly during the first five years after the new constitution is instituted, and another makes it possible for a non-lower house member to become prime minister.
Strong opposition to the draft constitution has been voiced by not just the political party founded by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- the Pheu Thai Party, which was ousted from power by the military in a coup in 2014 -- but also by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party, the PTP's main parliamentary opponent. This means the country's two main political forces prior to the coup have turned their backs to the charter.
STIFLING DISSENT The junta has stifled dissent by force. While staging a massive public-relations campaign to urge people to vote yes in the referendum, it cracked down on voices of criticism. The high degree of public support gained by the controversial draft constitution in the referendum may be seen as the result of the junta's controls on freedom of expression.
This reality inevitably arouses concerns about future political and social stability in the country. Indeed, on Aug. 11 and 12, shortly after the referendum vote, a series of bomb blasts -- apparently terrorist attacks -- hit popular Thai resorts, including the seaside town of Hua Hin in central Thailand and the southern island of Phuket.
Though it remains to be seen what forms the background of those incidents, they have undeniably created the impression that concerns about stability have begun to become reality. The bomb explosions are likely to have a tremendous negative impact on Thailand's tourism industry. They have already led to the cancellation of a planned visit to Thailand by Prince Akishino, the younger son of Japanese Emperor Akihito.
SEEKING STABILITY Meanwhile, a strong public backing of over 60% posted in the referendum for the new charter may be seen in part as a reflection of the Thai people's desire for political stability. Antagonism between the supporters and opponents of Thaksin, and what is rooted at the antagonism -- the hostility held by impoverished pro-Thaksin Thais against the traditional political elite -- have roiled Thai politics and society over the past decade and hurt its economy.
There is growing concern that Thailand, now visibly short of labor, may be caught in the middle-income trap unless it gears up efforts to restructure its industry. Another cause for worry is the declining health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the 88-year-old symbol of national unity, for whom the Thai people have deep love and respect.
On the diplomatic front, affiliation to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a major pillar of its diplomacy. Recently, however, a rift has been developing among ASEAN member states over how to respond to Beijing's assertiveness. While Thailand faces a delicate situation, the course taken by the country is deeply connected with the situation in the entire East Asia region.
In these circumstances, what is important for Thailand is to make use of the new charter as a foothold to build political stability. Achieving that objective will require efforts to bridge divides in society in a democratic way by considering a diversity of opinions.