BANGKOK: From her flower stall, Lakana Ponsin has had a ringside seat to the protests, bloodshed and coups that have defined Thailand’s last decade and drained enthusiasm for this weekend’s vote on a new charter.
The 44-year-old sells marigold garlands at a shrine on the Ratchaprasong junction, a traffic-choked intersection in Bangkok’s main shopping district.
It has been witness to some of the most painful acts in Thailand’s recent history, from a bloody military crackdown to bomb attacks and paralysing street protests.
For 10 years, power has flipped between elected governments led by or linked to billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, and rule by an arch-royalist army and its establishment allies.
Sunday’s vote will be the first time Thais head to the polls since the generals grabbed power from Thaksin’s younger sister Yingluck in 2014.
But interest appears thin. Millions are yet to receive a copy of the draft charter, while the junta has effectively banned campaigning against the document.
The military says the new constitution will curb political corruption and bring stability after the dizzying political merry-go-round of recent years.
Critics say it is intended to reinforce the military’s hold over democracy.
Whatever the outcome, few Thais expect the charter to last — the country has seen 19 since 1932.
“I just want anything that brings peace to the country and encourages people to discuss their problems without violence,” said Lakana.
Dubbed the “lost decade”, modern Thailand has seen democracy shunted aside, scores killed on Bangkok’s streets and the air squeezed from one of Southeast Asia’s best-performing economies.
“(Thailand) is deeply divided… worse than at anytime in its history,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic and former diplomat.
“There is no single institution which is neutral that is respected by all sides.”
The turmoil started in 2006 when the military ousted Thaksin, who went into self-imposed exile shortly after to avoid jail for graft — a charge he claims was politically motivated.
Competing street protests then unfurled. In 2010 scores of Shinawatra-supporting “Red Shirts” were gunned down at Ratchaprasong by the military.
A year later Yingluck was elected by a landslide as the Red Shirts fought back at the polls.
In 2013 protests returned, this time by Bangkok’s royalist elite who were intent on toppling Yingluck. Violence again hit the junction — two children were killed by a grenade a few hundred metres from Lakana’s stall.
A May 2014 coup ended the protests and brought the military back to power.
But the misery at Ratchaprasong was not over. Last August, a bomb killed 20 people, mainly tourists, at the shrine, sending a shudder through a city now permanently on edge.
From her spot, Lakana has been a reluctant witness to the turmoil.
“I am sad about all of the things that have happened here,” she said. “I want Thailand to be peaceful, have good business and economy.”
Divisions run deep
Experts say Thailand’s political crisis has been made more urgent by the failing health of 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as competing elites jostle for power before the transition.
Most Thais know no other monarch and his successor, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not draw the same level of respect.
Akanat Promphan, a Shinawatra critic who played a key role in the protests that prodded the army’s most recent coup, said voting for a new constitution could usher in a fresh start.
“Many great countries have gone through tough times,” he told Agence France-Presse. “Thailand is one of them… it’s just a process we must go through.”
But some fear the charter’s core aims are simply to expunge the Shinawatra family from politics and reinforce the generals’ power.
One clause, for example, calls for an appointed senate, which could be manipulated by the army to keep it at the heart of politics for years to come.
Another lowers the bar for impeaching a civilian prime minister.
“There is nothing that looks forward” in the document says Khattiya Sawasdipol, a former lawmaker in Yingluck’s government whose father was killed in 2010 for defecting to the Red Shirts.
“That means we will have problems in the future.”