The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand
The Rattanakosin Kingdom and the four traditionally counted preceding kingdoms, collectively called Siam, had an uncodified constitution until 1932. In the preamble to the Penal Code promulgated 1 April 1908, which came into effect on 21 September, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) stated: “In the ancient times the monarchs of the Siamese nation governed their people with laws which were originally derived from the Dhamasustra of Manu, which was then the prevailing law among the inhabitants of India and the neighbouring countries.”
The transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional democracy began when King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) agreed to a codified constitution to resolve the bloodless coup of 1932. The king signed a temporary charter on 27 June 1932 at 17:00, which began by announcing that “the highest power in the land belongs to all people.”
A significant disadvantage of a codified constitution is that controversies arise due to different understandings of the usages and customs from which the fundamental provisions of the constitution derive.
Since 1932, Thailand has had 20 charters or constitutions (as of 2015)—an average of one roughly every four years many adopted following military coups, which reflects a high degree of political instability. After each successful coup, military regimes abrogated existing constitutions and promulgated new ones. Parliamentary institutions, as defined by Thailand’s fourteen constitutions between 1932 and 1987, and competition among civilian politicians, have generally been facades for military governments.
All of these called for a constitutional monarchy, but with widely differing separation of powers between the branches of government. Most of them stipulated parliamentary systems, but several of them also called for dictatorships, e.g., the 1957 Charter. Both unicameral and bicameral parliaments have been used, and members of parliament have been both elected and appointed. The direct powers of the monarch have also varied considerably.
The 2007 Constitution of Thailand promulgated in 2007, replacing the 2006 interim constitution promulgated after the army-led September 2006 Thailand coup. The 2007 Constitution was written by a group of drafters appointed by the army-led Council for National Security, but was approved by a public referendum. Prior to the referendum, the military junta passed a law making it illegal to publicly criticize the draft. Controversial features in the constitution included a partly-appointed Senate and amnesty for the leaders of the 2006 coup.
The 1997 Constitution of Thailand, often called the “people’s constitution”, was considered a landmark in terms of the degree of public participation involved in its drafting as well as the democratic nature of its articles. It stipulated a bicameral legislature, both houses of which were elected. Many human rights were explicitly acknowledged for the first time, and measures were established to increase the stability of elected governments.
The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand
Siam (today known as Thailand) has had 20 constitutions and charters since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932.
- Temporary Charter for the Administration of Siam Act 1932
- The Constitution of the Siam Kingdom 1932
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1946
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Temporary) 1947
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1949
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1932 (Revised 1952)
- Charter for the Administration of the Kingdom 1959
- Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1968
- Temporary Charter for Administration of the Kingdom 1972
- Constitution for the Administration of the Kingdom 1974
- Constitution for Administration of the Kingdom 1976
- Charter for Administration of the Kingdom 1977
- Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1978
- Charter for Administration of the Kingdom 1991
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1991
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 1997
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim) 2006
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand 2007
- The Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim) 2014
Charters have traditionally been temporary instruments, promulgated following military coups. However, some charters, for instance the 1959 Charter of military dictator Sarit Dhanarajata, were used for years at a time. The 2006 coup resulted in an interim constitution rather than an interim charter.
The great number of charters and constitutions since 1932 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 Thailand’s charters and constitutions 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.
Based on the degree by which the legislature is elected, Thailand’s 20 constitutions and charters can be categorized into three groups
Evolution of Thai constitutions 1932-2006
- Elected legislatures: The legislature is completely elected. This included the 1946 Constitution where the elected House selected the Senate and the 1997 Constitution where both the House and Senate are elected.
- Appointed legislatures: The legislature is partly elected and partly appointed by the executive. The appointed members of the legislature are sufficient to limit the power of the elected representatives. The prime minister is either a military leader or a figurehead of the military or the palace. This includes the (after 1937), the 1947 Charter, the 1949 Constitution, the 1952 Constitution, the 1968 Constitution, the 1974 Constitution, the 1978 Constitution, the 1991 Constitution, the 2007 Constitution, and the Pending 2016 Constitution.
- Absolute executives: The executive has absolute or near absolute power, with either no legislature or a completely appointed legislature. The prime minister is usually a military leader or a figurehead of the military or the palace. This includes the 1932 constitutions (before 1937), the 1959 Charter, the 1972 Charter, the 1976 Constitution, the 1991 Charter, the 2006 Interim Charter, and the 2014 Interim Constitution.