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Legacies of Constitutional Engineering in Thailand

Legacies of Constitutional Engineering in Thailand

Allen Hicken of the University of Michigan traces some of today's political unrest and polarization in Thailand to the effects, intended and otherwise, of political reforms.

Since the 2006 military coup that removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power, political developments in Thailand have been fast, noted University of Michigan political scientist Allen Hicken, speaking to a UCLA audience on Jan. 20. The talk was sponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

"It's been an interesting few years … hard to get your head around," said Hicken. "In barely four years Thailand's had four elections, three constitutions, four party dissolutions, and six heads of government." Wearing red and yellow shirts, two opposing camps of demonstrators staged frequent, massive protests for about two years, and are still major political forces.

To set these events in context, Hicken focused in his lecture on the role that institutions – starting with reforms contained in the 1997 constitution – have played, sometimes unexpectedly, in changing forms of political participation. That constitution partly set the stage for Thaksin's rise and consolidation of power, creating incentives to nationalize parties and encouraging voters to place those institutions ahead of the personalities of candidates. Constitutional revisions, including those that followed the coup, also contributed to polarization and a regionally divided politics.

For certain Thai elites, Hicken observed, by 2007 "provincial voters are no longer just an annoyance or a hindrance. They've become an out-and-out threat."

An audio podcast of Hicken's talk accompanies this article. For additional podcasts from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, visit www.international.ucla.edu/cseas/podcasts/.

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