Thai Constitution Day / วันรัฐธรรมนูญ

Siam #236 (1939)

Siam #236 (1939)

December 10 is a public holiday in Thailand to commemorate Constitution Day (Wan Rattha Thammanun — วันรัฐธรรมนูญ). commemorating the promulgation of a permanent constitution in 1932 that gave the monarchy a significant increase in authority compared to the temporary charter signed following the coup of June 24, 1932. The monarchy would no longer have any say in government and instead would be a constitutional monarchy. However, the sacred and inviolable nature of the monarchy was established. Since 1932, Thailand has seen numerous coups and political changes which has resulted in new charters and constitutions. Nevertheless, every charter and constitution has recognized the special role of the monarchy in which the king is recognized as the Head of State, Head of the Armed Forces and Upholder of All Religions. Constitution Day continues to be celebrated as the date of the first constitution’s birth and Thailand’s transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy.

Since 1782 the Kingdom of Siam had been ruled by the House of Chakri, founded by King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (or Rama I). The capital city, Bangkok (built on Rattanakosin Island), was also founded by King Rama I. For over a century, the kings of Siam were able to protect the nation from neighbors (such as Burma) and other foreign nations, escaping colonialism from European powers such as Britain and France. In 1932 Siam, together with China and Japan, were the only independent countries remaining in East Asia.

King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) came to the throne in 1868, eager to modernize and reform his medieval kingdom, and he introduced many new reforms and inventions to his country. He openly embraced Europeans as well as European thought on many matters, chiefly law, politics, philosophy, commercialism, education, and medicine. He reformed the administration as well as the military system. At the same time, he successfully maintained the country’s fragile independence, located as it was between aggressive colonialists: the British Raj (Burma) and French Indochina (Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia). The king, who understood the importance of foreign education, not only sent his many sons to European schools and academies, but also sent thousands of commoners and scholarship students, anticipating that the kingdom’s survival rested on modernization.

He was succeeded on the throne by his son, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) (1910–25), a Sandhurst and Oxford graduate. Vajiravudh continued most of his father’s efforts in modernizing the infrastructure and other institutions of the country, including appointing able commoners to the government. The foundation of Vajiravudh College (a school founded on the model of an English public school) and Chulalongkorn University, (Siam’s first), were part of his educational reforms. He also encouraged European practices in fashion and the adoption by all of surnames. His reforms resulted in much anger in many quarters, especially from older, reactionary members of the aristocracy and nobility, whose influence was slowly being eroded. The speed of his constitutional reforms also resulted in dissatisfaction from an entirely different faction: progressives and radicals.

In 1912, a Palace revolt, plotted by young military officers, tried unsuccessfully to overthrow and replace the king. Their goals were to change the system of government, overthrowing the ancien régime and replacing it with a modern, Westernized constitutional system, and perhaps to replace Rama VI with a prince more sympathetic to their beliefs. The revolt failed and the participants were imprisoned. In reaction, Vajiravudh largely abandoned his attempts at constitutional reform and continued with his absolutist rule, with the minor exception of appointing some able commoners to his privy council and government.

In 1914, Vajiravudh promulgated a new martial law act that, with minor amendments, continued in force for over a century. King Vajiravudh died in 1925, and was succeeded by his younger brother King Prajadhipok (Rama VII).

Prince Prajadhipok Sakdidej, the Prince of Sukhothai, was the youngest son of King Chulalongkorn (the 33rd son and the 76th child of 77), an Eton and Woolwich Academy educated Prince. King Prajadhipok inherited a country in crisis, His brother Vajiravudh had left the state on the verge of bankruptcy, often using the treasury to cover-up the many deficits of the privy purse, and the fact that the state and the people were forced to subsidize the many princes and their lavish lifestyles.

After his coronation, the new king quickly created the Supreme Council of State (which became the main organ of state), to try to solve the many problems facing the nation. The council was composed of experienced senior princes who had held ministerial positions in previous administrations. Unfortunately, they were quick to replace the commoners appointed by Vajiravudh in the civil service and military with many of their own. The council was dominated by the Minister of the Interior, German-educated Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand, Prince of Nakhon Sawan, who was Prajadhipok’s older half brother. Due to the complicated succession law of the Chakri Dynasty, he was also heir to the throne.

Prajadhipok turned out to be a very sympathetic monarch. He immediately ordered a cut in palace expenditure and traveled extensively around the country to learn of his subjects’ lives. He made himself more accessible and visible to the ever-growing Bangkok elite and middle class by carrying out many civic duties. By this time, students sent to study abroad decades earlier had started to return. Faced with the lack of opportunity, the entrenchment of the princes, and the comparative backwardness of the country, most became disillusioned with the status quo.

By 1930, the events of the world were too much for the kingdom to bear, as the Wall Street Crash and the economic meltdown that came with it finally reached Siam. The king proposed the levying of general income taxes and property taxes to help alleviate the sufferings of the poor. These were roundly rejected by the council, who feared their fortunes would be reduced. Instead, they cut civil service payrolls and reduced the military budget, angering most of the country’s educated elite. The officer corps was especially disgruntled, and in 1931 Phra Ong Chao (lower class of prince) Boworadet, a minor member of the royal family and Minister of Defense, resigned. Prince Boworadet was not a member of the supreme council, and it was suspected that disagreement with the council over budget cuts led to his resignation. The king, who openly confessed his own lack of financial knowledge, stating he was just a simple soldier, tried with little success to battle the senior princes over this issue.

Meanwhile, the king put his efforts into the drafting of a constitution (which for the first time was to introduce democracy to Siam), with the help of two princes and an American foreign policy advisor, Raymond Bartlett Stevens. Despite being advised that his people were not yet ready for democracy, the king was undeterred and was determined to implement a constitution before his dynasty’s 150th anniversary in 1932. However, the document was completely rejected by the princes in the supreme council.

On April 6, 1932, when the Chakri Dynasty celebrated its 150th anniversary of rule over Siam, the king opened a bridge across the Chao Phraya River. The celebration was somewhat muted due to fears stemming from an alleged prophecy dating back to the days of King Rama I, which predicted the end of the dynasty on its 150th anniversary. By the end of April, Prajadhipok had left Bangkok for his summer holidays, leaving Prince Paribatra in charge as regent. The king went to the beach resort town of Hua Hin in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province to his summer villa, “Klai Kangwon” (วังไกลกังวล: translated as “far from worries”).

On June 24, 1932, the People’s Party, a coalition of civil servants, princes, and army officers, seized power in a bloodless coup. A provisional constitution was sent to King Prajadhipok along with an ultimatum from party leaders. On June 26, the king met the party leaders and refused to sign the charter. The next day, the king met the leaders again and signed the charter.

The People’s Party leaders generally followed the British parliamentary structure for the temporary charter. However, there were key differences, particularly regarding the powers of the monarch. The charter began by stating that sovereign power belongs to the people of Siam. Empowered to exercise power on behalf of the people were the People’s Assembly (the legislature) a 70-member, all appointed by the Khana Ratsadon, a 15-member People’s Committee of Siam (the executive), the courts of law (the judiciary), and the monarch. Members of the People’s Assembly and the People’s Committee were initially appointed. After 10 years or after half the population had completed primary education, the Assembly would be completely elected.

The monarch was not held to be infallible. He had a limited degree of sovereign immunity: although he could not be prosecuted in an ordinary court of law, the Assembly could impeach and try him. The monarch did not have the right to grant pardons. Several other features would be mirrored in later constitutions. The monarch would not have an absolute veto. Any law vetoed by the king was sent back to the Assembly, which could approve it with a simple majority. The charter followed the 1924 Palace Law with regards to succession. The Assembly, however, reserved the right to formally approve the successor.

In practice, the People’s Party made many concessions to the palace in putting together the new government. The premiership and the foreign ministry were given to two hard-line royalists: Phraya Manopakorn Nitithada and Phraya Srivisan Vacha. A total of four members of the People’s Committee were royalists who were not part of the People’s Party. Of the 70 members of the legislature, less than half came from the People’s Party, while the majority were high-ranking officials of the old regime. Despite this, the charter provoked fierce resistance from the palace. The new government reduced the palace budget and passed a taxation law that burdened the kingdom’s largest landowners, who were mostly nobles. In September 1932, a senior prince threatened the king’s abdication if a permanent constitution did not grant the palace greater power.

The People’s Party, facing an internal power struggle and opposition from the king, promulgated a permanent constitution on December 10, 1932. The constitution continued to state that sovereign power belonged to the people of Siam. However, unlike the temporary charter, the monarchy would now be the direct exerciser of that power, rather than the branches of government. This royal power would be exercised by and with the advice and consent of the People’s Assembly, the State Council (the cabinet), and the courts. However, the monarchy lacked any say in the composition of any of the branches of government and the royal veto could still be overruled. The monarchy was also made “sacred and inviolable”, in contrast to the temporary charter.

After the new constitution was adopted, a new 20-member cabinet was formed; ten of whom came from the People’s Party. On January 7, 1933, the Nationalist Party (คณะชาติ) was officially registered, with Luang Vichitvadakan, Phraya Thonawanikmontri, and Phraya Senasongkhram as leaders. The People’s Party had been officially registered in August 1932. The Assembly was expanded to 156 members, 76 elected and 76 appointed.

Thailand has had twenty constitutions and charters since 1932. This great number is indicative of the degree of political instability in Thailand. The majority of charters and constitutions were the direct or indirect result of military coups. Charters and constitutions for much of Thai history can be thought of not as instruments of the people to control the government, but as instruments by which a government controls its people. All of these have allowed a constitutional monarchy. Widely varying, however, have been the strength of the legislature, the percentage of legislators appointed versus elected, the power of the monarch, and the strength of the executive. These parameters have been influenced by the political and military strength of the regime and the degree of support from the king and the palace. For instance, the 1959 Charter gave Sarit Dhanarajata absolute power over the executive and the legislature, which reflected the overwhelming strength with which he executed a coup over Plaek Pibulsonggram as well as his strong support from the palace.

In the time I’ve lived in Thailand, just over a decade now, there have been two coups and four constitutions starting with a military staged a coup against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. on the evening of September 19, 2006, less than a month before scheduled nationwide house elections. The military junta abrogated the 1997 constitution, suspended the parliament, banned demonstrations and political activities, censored the media, and dissolved the constitutional court, National Human Rights Commission and other agencies created by the 1997 constitution. For the first weeks, the junta ruled by decree.

International condemnation and several local protests against the coup were conducted, despite the junta’s ban. In subsequent weeks, condemnation of the coup transformed into criticism of the junta-appointed government of General Surayud Chulanont and the constitution drafting process. A draft of the interim charter was released on September 27, 2006, to much criticism. The draft interim charter allowed the junta, which would be transformed into a permanent Council for National Security (CNS), to appoint an extremely powerful executive branch. The junta would also appoint a 250-member unicameral legislature.

A 2007 draft charter was approved by 59.3 percent of the voters on August 19, 2007, with 55.6 percent of qualified voters voting. Under the 2007 constitution, only half of the senate was elected; the other half was appointed. The executive branch was weakened, and half as many MPs were needed to propose a no-confidence vote compared to the 1997 constitution. The judiciary was strengthened and high-ranking judges became part of the appointment committees for the senate, the election commission, and virtually all other independent agencies, causing critics to label The 2007 constitution as “the absolute rule of judges.”

On May 20, 2014, in what was described as a partial repeal of the 2007 constitution, Prayut Chan-o-cha, the Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army, invoked the act proclaimed August 27, 2457 B.E. (1914 CE) as part of the administrative reforms of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) entitled Martial Law, B.E. 2457 (1914) (as amended in 1942, 1944, 1959, and 1972). General Prayut declared martial law and nighttime curfew nationwide, dissolved the government and the Senate of Thailand, invested the executive and legislative powers in the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) with himself its leader, and ordered the judicial branch to operate under its directives.

On May 29, General Prayut directly addressed public television audiences to announce plans for administering the country, emphasizing financial stability and transparency. He explained that because peace and reforms must first be achieved, national elections might not take place for more than a year, with no timetable for reinstating a codified constitution. Without public consultation, King Bhumibol Adulyadej assented to and signed a new constitution on July 22. 2014. The constitution came into force on that day and replaced the 2007 constitution.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) unveiled a draft constitution on March 29, 2016. In the run-up to the August 7, 2016, referendum on the new constitution, the army conducted a “grassroots information campaign.” There was no debate permitted on its merits. Under the junta’s rules, “people who propagate information deemed distorted, violent, aggressive, inciting or threatening so that voters do not vote or vote in a particular way” faced up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to 200,000 baht. The 105-page, 279-article proposed constitution was approved by 61.4 percent of Thai voters on August 7 with 59.4 percent of the public participating.

The proposed constitution allows the NCPO to appoint an eight to ten person panel who will choose parliament’s 250-member senate, to include six seats reserved for the head of the army, navy, air force, and national police, plus the military’s supreme commander, and defense permanent secretary. The senate can stage a no-confidence vote against a future elected government. The bicameral parliament could also select a candidate as prime minister who is not an MP or even a politician. That person could become prime minister if the appointed senate approves. Some suspect that with the new constitution the military seeks to hobble political parties in order to create disposable coalition governments. The military would then remain the real power, whatever the outcome of the referendum and the election.

The promised elections to approve the new constitution have been delayed indefinitely due to the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on October 13, 2016. They will likely occur at some point following the year-long government mourning period and the royal cremation ceremonies.

Scott #236, a 10-satang carmine stamp, was issued on June 24, 1939, to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the first Siamese constitution as well as the then-current holiday of National Day (later moved to December 5). Printed using the lithography process by the Royal Thai Survey Department in Bangkok, the stamp was perforated in a gauge of 12. It pictures the National Assembly Hall, also known as Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall (พระที่นั่งอนันตสมาคม). This is a royal reception hall within Dusit Palace in Bangkok, commissioned by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1908. The building was completed in 1915, five years after Rama V’s death in 1910. It now serves as a museum and is from time to time employed for certain state occasions.

The building in Italian Renaissance and neoclassical style was commissioned to the architects Mario Tamagno and Annibale Rigotti. Marble from Carrara, Italy and other foreign materials were used. Italian sculptor Vittorio Novi, who would later also work on the Mahadthai Udthit Bridge (สะพานมหาดไทยอุทิศ), was employed with his nephew Rudolfo Nolli.

The building was used as the headquarters of the People’s Party during the four days of the 1932 Revolution (June 24-27), which transformed the country’s political system from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. The first National People’s Assembly convened on June 28, 1932, in this throne hall. After that, it was used as the Parliament House until 1974 when the new Parliament House was opened to the north. However, the old Parliament House is still used for the State Opening of Parliament marking the first assembly in consequence of a general election for the House of Representatives.

The Throne Hall is a two-story construction with a large dome (49.5 meters high) in the center, surrounded by six smaller domes. The domes and walls are covered with paintings by Professor Galileo Chini and Carlo Riguli depicting the history of the Chakri Dynasty, from the first to the sixth reign. In front of the Hall is the Royal Plaza with the equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).

There are paintings on every ceiling and wall of the dome depicting the history of the Chakri Dynasty. The northern dome exhibits the picture of King Rama I leading his armies back to Thailand after defeating the Khmer and later crowned as the first king of the Chakri dynasty. The eastern dome shows the contribution of King Rama II and King Rama III to arts by ordering constructions of the royal temples. The southern dome displays King Rama V’s abolition of slavery. Pictures of King Rama IV (King Mongkut) surrounded by priests of various faiths are shown on the western dome, depicting the king’s advocacy of all religions. Mural paintings in the middle hall narrate the royal duties of King Rama V and King Rama VI. Other parts of the hall are decorated with King Rama V’s and King Rama VI’s monograms, including a variety of royal emblems such as the Garuda emblem. On the balcony of the middle hall, art nouveau paintings are decorated on the walls with pictures of European women holding flower garlands.

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