Since the coup d’état in 2006, Thailand’s Northeast has been the stronghold of opposition to the military.  Looking back at the 2007 referendum on the military-backed draft constitution, where a clear majority in the Northeast voted against it, some key insights could be gleaned. The results of the recent referendum showed that the Northeast still rejected the draft constitution, despite massive effort of the military regime’s crackdown on “Vote No” campaigns. What was the motivation behind the expression of dissent in the 2007 referendum, and why did that dissent become less pronounced in this month’s referendum?

There were 3,050,182 votes (37.20%) for the draft constitution; 5,149,957 votes (62.80%) against the draft constitution. These were the results of the nation-wide constitution referendum in 2007 from the Northeast. The outcome of this historic referendum is well known. The draft was approved, and the 2007 constitution was the country’s supreme law for almost seven years until the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) staged a coup d’état on 22 May 2014.

According to the numbers above, Thailand’s northeastern region saw the largest proportion and the largest number of voters oppose the 2007 constitution in comparison to other regions.

On Sunday, 7 August 2016, the Northeast again turned out to vote against the NCPO-backed draft constitution, although with a very slight majority (51.44%). Along with five provinces in the North and three provinces in the Deep South, most of the Northeast stood out in opposition.

To understand this continued, although abating, dissent, it is of critical importance to ask why the 2007 referendum results from Isaan ran counter to the majority of Thai voters who accepted the military-backed draft of the constitution. What did Isaan people want to relay to Thai society at large, nine years ago?

Voting in the constitution referendum – sending a political message

Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a professor at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, conducted a research project in 2009, entitled “Voters’ Behaviors in the Post-coup Referendum and Election: Politico-Economic Transformations and Their Effects on the Politics of Elections on the National and the Local-Village Levels.” According to her research, among voters who rejected the 2007 draft constitution, the 52.5-percent majority reported that they did so to “take a stand against the coup.” Coming in second, 46 percent claimed they voted against the charter because they “rejected the content in the constitution.” Among voters who said yes to the constitution, on the other hand, 80 percent reasoned that they voted for it because they “wanted elections to be held soon.”

(Left) A poster campaign for the approval of the 2007 draft constitution, citing the election that would take place after the approval — (Right) A poster campaign for rejecting the new draft constitution as a way to voice objection to the coup staged by the National Council for Peace and Order

(Left) A poster campaign for the approval of the 2007 draft constitution, citing the election that would take place after the approval — (Right) A poster campaign for rejecting the new draft constitution as a way to voice objection to the coup staged by the National Council for Peace and Order

The data from this research reveals that voting in the referendum was not only about whether voters approved of the content in the draft constitution—but it also reflected people’s political attitudes and opinions. Many voters took up the referendum as an arena for expressing political standpoints.

In an interview with The Isaan Record, Dr. Buapun Promphakping, a scholar at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Khon Kaen University, observes that prior to 1997, people still perceived matters related to the constitution as common public concern, as the shared statute on which society members must deliberate together. After 1997, in contrast, the constitution came to be seen as a weapon mobilized by some factions for their political gain.

In 2007, both sides of the constitution referendum campaigned extensively. The sheer variety of campaigning tactics evoked a political climate resembling that in other democratic countries. For example, the faction that supported the draft constitution was brandishing picket signs that said: “Approve the constitution so that the country can hold an election”—not to mention their “Accept this for now; amend it later” discourse. The faction opposing the new draft were mobilizing messages such as “Vote against the constitution to topple the coup.”

Back then, the expression of opinions on the draft constitution not only made it possible to voice criticism of the content in the new constitution, but it also allowed for discussions about the context of the referendum as well as the consequences that would follow.

Isaan’s political discontent: A key factor in deciding the referendum vote

In order to understand the political mood among Isaan people in the period during the 2007 constitutional referendum, we must first comprehend the political context at that time, both on the national level and on the regional level in the Northeast.

One of those who campaigned against the 2007 draft constitution, Teerapol Anmai, Professor of Liberal Arts at Ubon Ratchathani University, describes the atmosphere hovering over the referendum back then as follows:

“Campaigning was carried out openly, and there were no threats against citizens. People could gather together in discussion circles to talk about the content in the constitution. We intellectuals also participated in these discussions. They were asserting their rights to decide whether or not to endorse [the draft constitution].”

The general feeling around the campaign against the constitution was characterized by openness. Although there was a law which threatened campaigners with up to ten years in prison, the law was little used. In contrast, under the atmosphere before the 2016 referendum, Mr. Teerapol says he could not campaign as much as in 2007 because authorities are actively using a law banning criticism of the draft—more than a hundred people have been detained or arrested in the run-up to the vote—and some have even been charged with sedition.

“Campaigning was only a small part of the whole picture,” remarks Mr. Teerapol, “but what really happened to the people was that the political party [Thai Rak Thai party (TRT)] that they elected, along with the policies that benefited them, was being dismantled before their eyes.”

One of the most important factors behind the votes against the 2007 draft constitution was the discontent with the coup staged by Council for National Security (CNS) that ousted the government and the members of the Parliament who Isaan people had elected into office, according to Mr. Teerapol.

The Isaan region has been a political stronghold for Thaksin-affiliated parties since 2001. In 2005, the TRT scored a landslide victory in Isaan, netting 126 out of 135 parliament seats from the region. Eventually, the Thai Rak Thai government, headed by Thaksin Shinawatra, was ousted in a coup d’état staged by the CNS on 19 September 2006.

Another interesting statistics presented in Dr. Siripan’s aforementioned research is that 70 percent of those who voted against the draft constitution also voted for the People’s Power Party, the TRT successor party, in the general election near the end of 2007. This percentage was even higher in Isaan, with 71.4%. This number suggests that the large majority of those who voted against the CNS’s draft constitution in the referendum were partial to the political party of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In this way, a vote against the draft constitution became a channel for expressing one’s political standpoint.

Nevertheless, there were two provinces in Isaan that saw more “pro” votes than “contra” votes: Buriram and Nakhon Ratchasima.

“Isaan people participated in the election because they wanted to change their living conditions, to improve their economic statuses. Of course, the 30-baht health care program, the Village Fund, and the Thai Rak Thai policies in general have allowed people here to catch up financially. Therefore, 17 out of 19 Isaan provinces voted against the 2007 draft constitution. But two provinces, Buriram and Nakhon Ratchasima, voted for it. Buriram is Newin Chidchob’s political stronghold, while Nakhon Ratchasima is the headquarters of the People’s Alliances [for Democracy] in Isaan and also home to the Second Army,” Mr. Teerapol offers an explanation.

Dr. Alongkorn Akkasaeng, a lecturer at the College of Politics and Governance, Mahasarakham University, says that the high number of voters who rejected the 2007 draft constitution in the Isaan region was likely due to people’s discontent with the ousting of civilian government of Thaksin, which was elected by citizens from Isaan and from rural areas.

From 1981 onwards, elections have been a channel for people in Isaan to negotiate power with politicians and the bureaucratic system. Furthermore, they have been an avenue for negotiating and making demands for resources, budgets, and various government development projects.

“Especially in the Thaksin Shinawatra era, elections were very important to the feelings of people in the rural areas,” Dr. Alongkorn says, “because elections have made democracy more concrete, becoming palpable to citizens on the individual level.”

However, in the Northern region, also the stronghold of Thaksin’s support, the number of voters who endorsed the draft constitution was as high as 54.47 percent.

A scholar of the political history of Isaan, Dr. Somchai Phatharathananunth from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mahasarakham University, says that the reason behind the rejection of the 2007 draft constitution in the Isaan region lies in the discontent with the 2006 coup among villagers, rather than the directives from any political party for villagers to vote in accord with the party’s consensus.

According to Dr. Somchai, political parties hardly organized any campaigns related to the 2007 constitutional referendum. If the referendum results from the Isaan region diverged from other regions, therefore, it is because Isaan has always been better-versed in the process of making political demands. The region has learned from various social movements, to the point where it can be said that Isaan people have always been engaging in political struggles throughout Thai political history.

“It is such a commonplace. If we [Isaan people] are not happy with something, we must express demands,” says Mr. Somchai. “Therefore, there is not as much mobilization in resistance in other regions than there is in Isaan. It has always been like this throughout history.”

The atmosphere from observing the 2011 election in Khon Kaen, which was the general election that took place after the coalitional government led by Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolved the parliament. In the results of this election, the Pheu Thai Party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, secured 104 out of 126 parliament seats from the Isaan region.

The atmosphere from observing the 2011 election in Khon Kaen, which was the general election that took place after the coalitional government led by Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolved the parliament. In the results of this election, the Pheu Thai Party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, secured 104 out of 126 parliament seats from the Isaan region.

From 2007 to 2016 referendum: History repeats itself despite political changes

During the nine years between the 2007 constitutional referendum and today, there have been many significant political events in Thailand. These events have led to the coup that ousted the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai Party government and the abrogation of the 2007 constitution in 2014 by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). The referendum on 7 August has once again resulted in the overall approval of Meechai Ruchuphan’s draft constitution, with the overall rejection from the Northeast.

If we look back to the 2011 general election, the Pheu Thai Party secured 104 out of 126 parliament seats available in the Isaan region. Thus it is as though the same old script unfolded once more when that government popular among Isaan people was toppled by the judiciary, and then by another coup in 2014.

“Bao Wee,” a Red-Shirt activist and radio DJ from Khon Kaen, says that in 2007 there were hardly any gatherings on the local level to discuss the constitution. Nor was there a well-organized United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship like there is today. He admits to voting against the draft constitution because he still held the 1997 constitution in high regard, reasoning that it was the best constitution that emerged from people’s participation. In his view, a large of number of Isaan people who voted against the constitution was due to, more than any other reason, their appreciation for the Thai Rak Thai policies.

“They thought that if they didn’t accept the constitution that did not come from the people,” he says, “maybe it would be a fight that would bring back the ex-Prime Minister [Thaksin]. But the elders were saying to accept it for now, so that the nation can move forward, and then we can revise it later.”

Commenting on the current political situation right before the referendum, Bao Wee says, “These days villagers are very politically active. They feed on news—they know everything about what is what. They already have an answer in their minds about what to do.”

As Bao Wee sees it, what distinguishes the current situation from the referendum nine years ago is that people are much more politically active on the local level now. However, this does not mean that Northeasterners will think or vote the same way as the political parties they support.

Another way in which Isaan is an important factor in determining the referendum outcome is that Isaan has as many as 17 million voters who can participate in this referendum, which amount to 33.6 percent of all eligible voters in the country. In the past elections, it is no surprise that Isaan is a significant indicator of which political parties will hold the electoral majority.

Although a sizable proportion of votes from Isaan rejected the draft constitution, ultimately they were not enough to turn the tide of the 2007 constitutional referendum. This was because the number of voters in the referendum was low in Isaan, which was the region with the lowest voter turnout rate at 52 percent. It is curious why the voter turnout in the referendum was so low in comparison to prior elections, the first of which saw a 67-percent turnout rate, while the subsequent election in the same year saw a 71-percent turnout rate.

The significant decrease in the number of voters in the 2007 referendum compared to the turnout in general elections raises the question of why people refused to vote in the referendum. Was a significant part of it an intentional “no vote” in order to boycott the coup-makers?

Indeed, the answer seems to be yes. According to E-Saan Poll conducted a few days before the referendum, Northeasterners who said they would not vote were less receptive to the referendum’s second question, which if approved would allow for a prime minister handpicked by the military-controlled Senate. Of those who did not turn out, E-Saan Poll shows from a randomized and representative sample of 1,096 people from 20 provinces that 78.5% rejected the proposition compared to 65.8% of those who did.

The actual results this month, however, saw only 55.4% of Northeasterners reject the second question. The main question—whether to accept or reject the draft constitution—saw 51.4% of Northeasterners rejecting the draft while an overall 61.8% approved it nationwide.

Despite a continued majority of dissent, almost one million “No” votes are missing from the Northeast this time around compared to the 2007 referendum. “No” votes amounted to 4,153,178 (51.42%), while “Yes” votes amount to 3,923,855 (48.58%) this time.

The results have left many baffled. But in order to understand this decreasing expressed opposition to military rule in the Northeast, one can at least point to the fact that, this time around, the regime heavily censored any dissenting views on the draft constitution. Distributing “Vote No” leaflets or simply telling people in public to not vote resulted in many being thrown in jail. According to Thai Lawyer for Human Rights, more than three hundred individuals were arrested for violating the referendum act or related charges. Almost half of those three hundred were red shirts who tried to establish United Front for Democracy’s referendum monitoring centers in the provinces.

None of this happened in 2007. Back then, the “Vote No” campaign could publish explicitly anti-military advertisements in newspapers, and this campaign marked the first time when the color red became a symbol of rejecting military rule. Later, the color took on, becoming a unifying sign for Thailand’s red shirts. Now, however, the activities of virtually all red shirt leaders, national and local, were closely monitored, which made communication about the draft constitution difficult, at best.

Prior to this latest referendum, the government deployed more than a million students, public health volunteers, and local administrators to spread the message that this draft constitution was against political corruption and that if approved general elections would come soon, that is, in late 2017. When there was no organized strategy strong enough to counter that message, it might have discouraged many would-be dissenters or turned them into those who said yes, in hopes that elections would finally come again after the annulled elections early in 2014.

First published in Thai on August 5, 2016. The English translation was updated after the results of the August 7 constitution referendum were known.