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Law scholar travels to Thailand as nation ponders 18th constitution


Mark Reutter, Business & Law Editor
217-333-0568; mreutter@illinois.edu

Tom Ginsburg
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Law professor Tom Ginsburg provided legal background to Thailand as the country begins to write its 18th constitution.

Released 1/24/2007

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thailand has drafted 17 constitutions since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Will an 18th constitution help restore democracy, which ended last September after a military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra?

“There is some chance that Thailand will revert to a stable pattern of democracy, but there are a number of wild cards, and things could end up in a pattern of renewed instability,” said Tom Ginsburg, a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who traveled to Thailand earlier this month.

Ginsburg, director of the law school’s program in Asian law, politics and society, gave presentations in Bangkok and Chiang Mai to academics, government officials and civic leaders. He was a keynote speaker at a seminar on constitutional law hosted by King Prachathipok’s Institute, one of Thailand’s leading think tanks.

His talks were aimed at providing legal background as Thailand begins to write a new constitution in preparation for a return to democratic rule. The military government has promised to complete the new constitution by October 2007 and hold free elections.

“Many in Thailand were in favor of the coup because of the problems of corruption by the ousted prime minister,” Ginsburg said. “But my own view, which I noted in my presentations, is that long-term democracy and constitutional instability are incompatible. At some point, the Thais need to develop institutions that function independent of the personalities in office at any particular time.”

Ginsburg said a stable democracy is particularly urgent now because Thai’s constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is 79 years old. The monarch has ruled for more than 60 years and is credited as a moderating force among the country’s contentious political factions.

The bloodless coup came after Prime Minister Thaksin dissolved the Thai parliament for new elections, which were so poorly administered that the country’s constitutional court ordered a re-vote. Thaksin never complied.

“The 1997 Thai constitution was a very good one. But probably no constitution could have withstood the challenge of a populist billionaire (Thaksin) who corrupted every institution,” Ginsburg said.

Ironically, a primary concern of the drafters of the 1997 Thai constitution was to keep the military out of politics. There have been 20 coups in Thailand since 1932, which is the only nation in Southeast Asia never to have been taken over by a European power.

“It’s important to note that other democracies have had characters similar to Thaksin in high office and eventually got rid of them through constitutional means,” Ginsburg said.