‘Rule of law’ indisputable legacy of the unfinished 1932 Revolution

Despite relentless attempts by Thailand’s conservative elite to bury the memory of the People’s Party, which brought to an end the absolute monarchy, the legal legacy of the 1932 democratic revolution which gave birth to the first constitution of the nation and laid the foundation of the rule of law lives on.

“At this place, at dawn on 24 June 1932, we the People’s Party gave birth to the Constitution for the progress of the nation,” reads the inscription of the 1932 Revolution plaque once located close to the Equestrian Statue of King Rama V at the Royal Plaza, Bangkok.

The brass plaque commemorating the 1932 Revolution

The recent disappearance of the plaque followed by the ban on any gathering at the Royal Plaza cast a shadow over the 85th anniversary of the 1932 Revolution on 24 June 2017. However, as the country completed its third year under military rule, many people seem to yearn for remnants of the distant past, when the seed of democracy was first planted. Although a series of coups d’état, including the latest, have stifled democracy before it could take a firm hold in Thai society, legal experts point out that concept of the ‘rule of law’ and ‘popular sovereignty’ are indispensable contributions of the People’s Party.

“People are the owners of the sovereignty of the state. This is the biggest change,” Worachet Pakeerut, an embattled law academic of the Nitirat group, wrote in his article in ‘80 Years of Democracy’.

The academic, known for his campaign against the controversial Article 112 of the Criminal Code, the lèse majesté law, pointed out that the constitution promulgated by the People’s Party in the immediate aftermath of the 1932 Revolution differs greatly from the draft which King Prajadhipok had in mind but which was never enacted. The King’s version stated ‘the supreme power throughout the Kingdom shall be vested in His Majesty the King’.

Rangsiman Rome, a leading democracy activist, said that by enshrining the principle of people’s sovereignty in the constitution, the People’s Party laid an important foundation of democracy. “They were the first to install the legal mechanism in the constitution to restrain the arbitrary use of power by the rulers, giving power to the people.”

Worachet explained further that in the first constitution, to which King Prajadhipok added the word ‘interim’ before agreeing to sign it, the People’s Party aimed at transferring the power of the monarch to the people through the House of Representatives. Therefore, at that time the House of Representatives was the most powerful institution. The first constitution set the composition of the House of Representatives in three stages, transforming from a fully appointed house initially to half-appointed and half-elected and finally to fully elected within a period of 10 years.

The famous photograph of a member of the People's Party reading the manifesto of the party at the Royal Plaza on 24 June 1932  

The first constitution, however, was in force for less than six months because it was replaced by another approved by King Prajadhipok on 10 December 2017 (the current Constitution Day). This replaced the People’s Party political system with a bicameral parliamentary system.

Asked if he envisions a different Thai society today if the People’s Party version of the constitution had prevailed, Rangsiman said the constitution is subject to socio-political changes in the country, so it should be amended as time goes by.

“The status of the constitution now, however, is nearly just a piece of meaningless paper because it had been torn up many times by coup-makers throughout Thai history,” the activist told Prachatai. “The constitution is supposed to be the last barrier of political conflict. It is supposed to be the rule book to break away from political gridlock. However, in Thai society, people looked towards [the late] King Bhumibol as the last resort when political conflict occurred.”

The principle of ‘the rule of law’ or ‘all shall be equal before the law’ is another important contribution of the People’s Party. Although the principle of the rule of law was not written into the first constitution, it appears in the six principles of the People’s Party, Worachet wrote.

The six principles (in Thai:หลัก 6 ประการ lak hok prakan) of the People’s Party are:

  1. Secure the independence of the country in all forms including political, judicial, and economic, etc.
  2. Safeguard the country from harm and greatly reduce harm
  3. Maintain the economic well-being of the people by the new government finding employment for the people, drawing up national economic plans, and not leaving the people to go hungry
  4. Provide the people with equal rights so that those of royal blood do not have more rights than the people as at present
  5. Provide the people with liberty and freedom, as far as this does not conflict with the above four principles
  6. Provide a complete education to the people.

Members of the People's Party

According to Rangsiman, under the current military government the principle of the rule of law is degraded to ‘rule by law’ as the Thai junta can invoke absolute power at will under Section 44 of the 2014 Interim Constitution to override regular laws and regulations. “The ruling junta issues announcements and orders and demands that the people obey the law while ironically using Section 44,” said Rangsiman.

In an interview with Prachatai, Thongchai Winichakul, a renowned Thai historian, pointed out “The rule of law is something that democratic societies cannot do without. A society that lacks the rule of law will decline, has no way of becoming a democracy and is a society that is not worth living in, and not worth investing in or doing business in. The lack of the rule of law leads to a failed state.”

For Worachet, despite the fact that the political ideology of the People’s Party has been transformed and gradually replaced by another set of ideologies from opposing political forces, the contribution of the People’s Party in trying to establish a democratic system of governance with the rule of law cannot be forgotten, even though it is incomplete.

According to Thongchai, the greatest failure of the rule of law in Thailand is legal inequality in which the judicial system has helped to establish that certain groups of people are above the law.

The revolution of 1932 is not yet finished, not merely with regard to the political system, but with regard to the establishment of the rule of law, Thongchai concludes.