Written and collected by Anon Chawalawan
Photographs from iLaw’s Facebook page
Translated by Anusara Drahmoune
- Sample document envelopes where senders wrote words of encouragement or other heartfelt messages
- A mock CD used for submitting to the EC, labeled with “2xx,xxx Names Submitted to EC, E-Doc”
- A light blue leaflet with “Complete Rewrite, 100% Elected,” compiling information on how to sign and the importance of proposing good public referendum questions
- A dark blue shirt screen-printed with the message “Complete Rewrite, 100% Elected”
- Sample paper signs used in the campaign, with messages like “Help Reach 50,000 Names in 7 Days” and “Expedite the Verification of Citizens’ Names”
On August 7, 2023, the Pheu Thai Party and the Bhumjaithai Party announced a collaboration to form a government with 212 seats in parliament. In their initial cabinet meeting, they proposed a referendum for a new constitution. Some civil society organizations expressed concerns that if the referendum question is poorly worded or restrictive, it might result in a faulty constitution as did the referendum under the junta in 2016. In response, a campaign named “#ConForAll” was launched to gather 50,000 signatures to propose a referendum question to the Cabinet, emphasizing that the entire constitution should be redrafted and all members of the Constitutional Drafting Assembly should be elected.
The #ConForAll campaign, launched on August 13, faced a tight schedule. The group had until August 25 to submit the gathered names for verification before the first cabinet meeting. By August 22, the day Srettha Thavisin was declared Prime Minister, the campaign had collected 50,000 signatures, counting both online and on paper. However, the Election Commission informed the group that online submissions were not valid, rendering over 40,000 signatures useless. The group had only three days left. But by the evening of August 25, they had managed to gather not 50,000—but over 200,000 paper signatures.
The campaign’s beginning
Before the 2023 election, the issue of constitutional amendments was a focal point for the opposition parties. Both Pheu Thai Party and Move Forward Party elevated this issue as a key policy to garner support. The election results of May 14, 2023, saw Move Forward and Pheu Thai emerging as the first and second largest parties in the parliament, respectively. This outcome hinted that constitutional amendments were indeed a significant concern for the electorate who voted for these two parties.
On May 22, marking the ninth anniversary of the 2014 coup, Pita Limjaroenrat, the leader of the Move Forward Party and the winner of the election, signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a government with the leaders of the former opposition and new political parties including Thai Sang Thai Party, Pheu Thai Ruamphalang, FAIR Party, and Plung Sungkom Mai Party. One of the key agreements was to expedite the creation of a people’s constitution, with all members of the Constitutional Drafting Assembly being directly elected by the citizens.
However, eventually, when the Move Forward Party couldn’t secure more than half of the combined parliamentary seats as per clause 272 of the 2017 Constitution, it had to step back. This allowed the Pheu Thai Party to take the lead, forming a coalition across the political divide without the involvement of Move Forward.
On August 7, the Pheu Thai Party reached an agreement to form a coalition government with the Bhumjaithai Party, a former member of the second Prayuth government, and the third-largest party in the House of Representatives. The agreement between the two parties outlined their commitment to amending the constitution. In their initial cabinet meeting, they resolved to conduct a referendum to create a new constitution. The process would involve establishing a Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA).
However, a notable difference emerged between the memorandum of understanding under Move Forward and the one under Pheu Thai and Bhumjaithai. The former MOU clearly stated that CDA members should be entirely elected by the public. In contrast, the new MOU did not specify the origin of CDA members.
Following the joint announcement by the Pheu Thai and Bhumjaithai parties, several civil society organizations, including the People’s Movement for a People’s Constitution (PMC), Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), FreeArts, and Constitution Advocacy Alliance (CALL), engaged in discussions. They concluded that although the Pheu Thai Party affirmed its commitment to constitutional reform, the potential for ambiguity in the referendum, the amendments and the origin of the CDA members could hinder political progress or even worsen the current state of affairs.
As a result, these civil society groups united under the initiative “People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution” with a mission to gather 50,000 signatures from voters. Their goal was to propose a referendum question for the consideration of the Cabinet, ensuring that it would be included in the forthcoming public vote. The question they are putting forward is:
“Do you agree that the Parliament should amend the 2017 Constitution to facilitate the drafting of a completely new one, with the Constitution Drafting Assembly members being directly elected by the public?”
This implies an overhaul of the current constitution, with all members of the drafting assembly elected by a public vote, as encapsulated in their campaign slogan: “Complete Rewrite, 100% Elected.”
The group launched their campaign and initiated the first signature collection at the plaza in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre on August 13. Although at that time the Parliament had not yet reached a decision on the Prime Minister’s appointment, the political trajectory was inclining towards a coalition government between Pheu Thai and former coalition parties. The group set August 25 as the final day for collecting signatures, anticipating that if the Parliament approves the appointment of the Prime Minister on August 22, approximately two weeks would be needed to form the government and hold the first cabinet meeting between September 5 and 10. The group expressed concerns that any delay in submitting documents could lead to missing the initial cabinet meeting due to the Election Commission (EC)’s verification process.
Obstacles make for good stories
On August 13, when the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution held their inaugural campaign event and set up the first signature collection booth at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, around 500 people participated by signing the paper forms. In the following days, iLaw, one of the collaborating organizations, opened its office as another signature collection point. The public also engaged via the “conforall” website, the main communication channel of the campaign, volunteering to set up signature collection points at shops, businesses, and public places. For those unable to reach the physical signing locations, the website was intended to facilitate online signature collection.
However, ambiguity arose concerning the legality of online signature collection, as no explicit laws regulate this method. The campaign organizers sought clarity from the EC on whether online signatures would be allowed – but received no definitive answer.
On August 22, just eleven days after the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution launched their signature collection, three pivotal developments occurred. In the morning, the team responsible for verifying the signatures announced that they had gathered over 50,000 signatures. This comprised more than 10,000 on paper forms and about 40,000 online.
By the evening, the parliament resolved to select Srettha Thavisin, Pheu Thai Party’s candidate, as the Prime Minister. This initiation of the countdown to the first formal cabinet meeting seemed to align with the group’s plan, given they had already amassed the required signatures. However, a substantial obstacle emerged. The group’s representatives, who had been in talks with the EC regarding online signatures, received disappointing news: online signatures would not be accepted. This ruling instantly invalidated more than 40,000 online signatures collected.
The group was then faced with the daunting task of collecting over 40,000 signatures via paper forms within just three days to meet the original deadline. In response to this unexpected hurdle, they hastily convened a press conference late on the night of August 22. They aimed to inform the public and invite those willing to participate in the campaign to sign the paper forms available at designated points, the details of which were available on the “conforall” website.
Though confronted with this significant obstacle, the public announcement by the group’s representatives immediately ignited a wave of enthusiasm among the citizens. People from various regions and provinces expressed their eagerness to volunteer, setting up signature collection points in their local areas. Some volunteers positioned themselves at bustling locations, such as subway stations and shopping malls, to gather signatures.
Employees from numerous companies took initiative as well, collecting the signatures of their colleagues at their workplaces. The filled forms were then handed over to riders for delivery to iLaw’s office, which served as the central collection point for the signatures.
On August 25, the final day for the public to sign up, iLaw’s office was inundated with phone calls from early morning, as people inquired about signature points and details on document submission. Throughout the day, no fewer than 100 trips were made by riders delivering documents. Some riders, after delivering the documents, requested to sign up as well. Meanwhile, mailed forms from citizens started arriving at the designated P.O. box, a channel set up by the group for receiving postal documents.
However, a hiccup occurred when the postal system experienced issues due to the large volume of mail, causing anxiety among those who had sent their documents. They discovered through the postal system’s tracking that the delivery was not successful, leading to multiple phone calls to iLaw’s office to report the issue. The team had to liaise with the postal service to resolve the matter. It was eventually confirmed to be a system glitch, and the letters had indeed arrived at the P.O. box. This clarification was communicated to the concerned citizens to assure them that their contributions had been received and their efforts were not in vain.
Around 5:00 PM, iLaw’s Facebook page announced that the group had verified over 50,000 names submitted by the public, with many more yet to be checked or in transit. By 9:25 PM, iLaw reported that they had verified a total of 112,507 names and still had many more to go through. The team estimated that the number of citizens participating in proposing the referendum question would likely reach two hundred thousand.
By August 27, two days after closing the registration, the team and volunteers of the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution had completed the verification of 205,739 names.
Not a miracle, but people power
Gathering 50,000 signatures was only the halfway point for the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution. On August 22, when the EC informed the group representatives that online signatures could not be accepted, they were also told that every single document had to be scanned into digital files. Plus, the names and national ID numbers of all signatories needed to be entered into an Excel spreadsheet before the agency could proceed with verification.
Scanning and entering the details of over 200,000 names on nearly 30,000 sheets of paper was already a herculean task, requiring both significant manpower and time. However, an additional time constraint was imposed when, on August 23, Srettha Thavisin was formally appointed Prime Minister with a royal announcement. This indicated that the first meeting of the newly formed cabinet was imminent.
Starting on August 23, the group began the painstaking task of scanning documents and entering the information of those who signed their support into an Excel sheet. This effort was aligned with the launching of collection points for gathering more signatures. This monumental task gained full momentum on August 26, following the closure of the signature collection phase. The process involved opening and sorting through no less than 10,000 postal envelopes, organizing documents, scanning them, and meticulously entering over 200,000 names found on nearly 30,000 sheets of paper into an Excel document.
The race against time was dictated by the unfolding political situation. By August 28, the Srettha government was starting to take shape following the conclusion of the ministerial candidates’ names and their subsequent submission for a royal endorsement. Preparing the documents for the EC’s review and approval within the tight time frame of the first cabinet meeting seemed an insurmountable task.
But in the few days before the deadline, a wave of community response ensued. At least 2,500 citizens volunteered to gather signatures, establishing over 500 collection points nationwide. The public’s enthusiasm didn’t stop there – many took the initiative to gather signatures within their families and workplaces, bearing the postage costs personally to send their forms to the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution.
In just three days, the number of signatures skyrocketed to over two hundred thousand, quadrupling the legal requirement. Additionally, another 200 volunteers alternated in shifts to enter data and scan documents, managing to process this enormous amount of information by August 29, only four days after the signature collection ended on August 25.
In a parallel show of support, citizens unable to volunteer their time for data entry sponsored meals delivered to the iLaw office. This nourished both the staff and volunteers – because you can’t go on a march on an empty stomach.
Costs not to be discounted
On August 28, a delegation from the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution assembled to submit a letter to the Pheu Thai Party at its headquarters. The letter aimed to inform the ruling party of the ongoing signature collection process and demanded that, as the government’s leading party, they consider the public’s question. Over 205,739 eligible voters, along with the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution, had proposed this question for consideration in the formulation of the new constitution. Ratchapong Jaemjirachaiyakul, a representative of the network, declared during one segment of the announcement:
“… I want to stress that with such a significant number of names, even if the Election Commission ends up citing administrative delays as the reason for its inability to verify the names in time, the political parties in government has the option to proceed anyway with adopting the people’s questions. There’s no need to wait for the Election Commission as, today, the public has demonstrated their intentions clearly.”
The representative’s statement does not seem like much of an exaggeration, considering the “costs” carried by more than 200,000 participants who proposed the constitutional draft. They bore the expense of document delivery, estimated to be no less than 300,000 baht, and nearly 30,000 sheets of paper. More crucially, there is the contribution of time and effort by volunteers who joined this mission. Both those collecting names and those managing the documents worked from August 13 to August 29 without any compensation.
On August 31, representatives of the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution submitted the names and the aspirations of over 200,000 citizens to the EC for verification. This substantial collection is intended to propel the public referendum questions, aiming at the establishment of a new constitution crafted by 100% elected representatives, into the Cabinet’s purview for the next procedural steps.
After the handover to the EC, there’s a 30-day window allocated for the verification of submitted names. However, this does not necessarily mean the Commission will utilize the entire period. Especially given that the officials won’t be verifying names from paper forms but from the electronic documents already prepared by the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution, potentially streamlining the process.
On September 1, the Office of the Prime Minister’s Secretary introduced the cabinet members to the King, clarifying that the first meeting of Srettha 1 Cabinet would be held on September 12. By the day of the first cabinet meeting, the EC had not yet completed the verification of the names of those who proposed the referendum questions. However, since no resolutions regarding the referendum issue were made during that meeting, and the appointment of Phumtham Wechayachai as the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Commerce to oversee the referendum process was announced, there is still a chance for the question proposed by the People’s Group for Drafting the Constitution and co-signers to be considered.
On September 14, representatives of the group visited the EC again to inquire about the progress. By September 20, the EC informed Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the representative of the group listed as the proposer of the public questions, that they had verified 50,000 names successfully and would forward all documents to the Secretary of the Cabinet to pass on to the relevant agencies for another round of verification before including the questions in the cabinet meeting agenda. This stage has no specified timeline, so it remains to be seen how the government will respond to the will of the over 200,000 citizens, and by extension the hopes and dreams of many more.