Persons of the Year 2023: the citizen volunteers of the constitutional amendment campaign

On 13 August 2023, a network of civil society organizations and activist groups called the People’s Constitution Drafting Group launched a campaign to collect 50,000 signatures from voters to propose a referendum on whether a new Constitution should be drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly.

The network hoped to submit the petition in time for the first cabinet meeting and originally had around a week to collect the signatures. The campaign ran both online and offline, but the network was told on 22 August 2023, hours after the petition gained the required number of signatures, that online forms would not be accepted, rendering over 40,000 of the signatures void.

The People’s Constitution Drafting Group put out an urgent call for anyone who signed the petition online, along with others who had not signed, to find the closest signature collection point and sign the petition in person or mail a signed form to the legal watchdog NGO iLaw.

In the following days, citizens launched their own campaigns to get people to sign the petition. Business owners set up signature collection tables in their stores. Student organizations set up locations on campuses, while others collected signatures from friends, family members, and co-workers. Supporters of the campaign went to coffee shops and train stations and posted their locations on social media so people could come and sign the petition and drop off signed forms, while volunteers turned up at iLaw’s signature collection spot at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) to help with the collection.

Within less than a week, the campaign gained 212,139 signatures, over four times the legally required number of signatures.

For their effort in collecting signatures for the constitutional amendment campaign, Prachatai has named the active citizens from across the country who contributed to the dramatic rise in number of signatures backing the petition our 2023 Persons of the Year.

Doing the impossible

Members of the People’s Constitution Drafting Group at iLaw’s office on the night of 27 August 2023. They had 205,739 signatures at the time, with more arriving by mail over the next few days.
(Photo by iLaw)
 

For Yingcheep Atchanont, manager of iLaw, what happened not only surprised him but also changed how he sees Thai politics. When the network first announced that they needed 40,000 more signatures, he believed it was impossible to collect that many signatures in three days, and that it would be a miracle if they got to the required number at all.

But the team at iLaw then noticed an abnormally large number of people were watching and sharing their Facebook and Twitter live broadcasts. The first set of signature sheets was delivered the next morning, and by 10 that day, people were already arriving at the office to hand in signature sheets. Collecting 50,000 signatures in 3 days started to look possible.

That they not only met the required number of signatures but collected over 200,000, was not a miracle but a new standard, Yingcheep said.

Yingcheep Atchanont

“A miracle means that there is some chance, but this is us saying together that this is the new standard of the society we’re living in together,” he said.

“50,000 signatures within 3 days is very easy because we got over 200,000 signatures. It’s like we only needed a quarter of what we got. It’s as if we have said that our society is better than that, better than we think. People are ready to take action and want more political participation than we think, which is a new standard we haven’t seen before.”

During the week that the campaign was running, members of the public were standing at train stations or walking through their neighbourhoods to collect signatures. At the height of the campaign, delivery riders were coming to iLaw’s office so often that someone from the network had to stand on the footpath in front of the building to collect envelopes. Yingcheep believes there were several hundreds or even up to a thousand citizen volunteers collecting signatures for the campaign.

Joy (right) delivering signature sheets to iLaw’s signature collection table at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC)

31-year-old Joy was one of the volunteers. She started collecting signatures from her co-workers, noting that many who signed have different political opinions but agree that the current Constitution is problematic. Some disagree with amending the royal defamation law, but signed the petition once she explained that this campaign is unrelated. Some people took overnight to decide, but signed the petition once they saw that over 200 people in the company had signed.

Armed with a laminated sheet of paper with frequently asked questions about the campaign, Joy collected signatures from the neighbours living in her condominium and stood at the Phasi Charoen MRT station and Seacon Bangkae shopping mall so others could sign the petition.

“Someone came down from the condominium to bring me snacks,” Joy said. “They bought me snacks because they felt that sitting there I was getting nothing, so they told me to take the snacks.”

Joy’s signature collection spot and Q&A sheet containing information on who is eligible to sign the petition and what information to put on the signature sheet. (Supplied photo)

A friend who lives in the same condominium suggested to Joy that they should go to the nearby MRT station to collect signatures. Even at around midnight, commuters coming out of the station were approaching them to sign the petition. Meanwhile, the security guard at the station was letting them stay but asked them to stay out of sight of the CCTV camera.

Joy collected over 300 signatures. She said that she was happy she could deliver the signatures of those who wanted to contribute, because no one in the neighbourhood was doing anything like this.

“I was happy that there were people who saw why this is valuable,” she said

Lalita Phechpuang

Meanwhile, in the seaside resort town of Bang Saen in Chonburi Province, 28-year-old Lalita Phechpuang had been putting signatures collection sheets in cafes and bars. She also went to Chiang Mai to volunteer at an event in which local activists set up a 24-hour signature collection table at Tha Phae gate, a tourist landmark in Chiang Mai’s old town, and at a nearby walking street.

“People were rushing to bring signature sheets to me at the table at 3 in the morning. Late at night there weren’t a lot of people, but they kept coming until morning,” Lalita said. “People kept bringing [the signature sheets]. From what they told me, they saw the campaign online and wanted to help, but they don’t have time during the day, so they drove in to bring them to us, the ordinary people who live around there.”

Lalita said she felt hopeful after she saw that the campaign gained so many more signatures than it needed. She felt that people were paying attention, which encouraged her to keep working to show the government that people care about constitutional amendments and that it has to listen to what they have to say.

Yingcheep credited the campaign’s success to the volunteers. It did not happen because of iLaw, he said, noting that it was the volunteers who were bringing them signatures.

“They were doing it for themselves, for their own country, for their lives, for their own futures. The things that they do, for me, is much greater than what I do,” he said.

“[iLaw] is an organization that works on the Constitution. It is supported by donations from the people. If the government gets as far as having a referendum with a bad question and we do nothing, we don’t deserve to live, but because we feel that we need to do something, we do it, but people who were paying their own expenses, they all deserve much more praise than what I do. I would like to return all the praise back to the hundreds and thousands of people who got up and did something over 3 – 4 days.”

The dream of a new Constitution

Joy said she wanted the Constituent Assembly to be entirely elected and for the entire Constitution to be amended, but thinks that other political factions will not let it happen. Nevertheless, she believes that it would be possible in the future since she hopes that the powers that be would see that tens of thousands of people have backed the petition.

“The people who drafted the Constitution, I feel that they are looking down on the people while they are not seeing civil society looking up,” she said.

Joy noted that many people she talked to questioned whether the campaign could accomplish anything. She asked whether those in power would put what the people really want in the Constitution, and said that she wants them to think about where they come from, especially those who are in office with the support of the people. They should also listen to what the people want and not just to write what they want, Joy said.

The team at iLaw counting the signatures as signed forms continue to arrive from all over the country before the petition drive closed on 25 August 2023.

Meanwhile, Lalita said that the past drafting process has shown that a constitution which was not drafted with input from the public will not respond to what the people wants, and so public participation is needed so that the new Constitution will fit people’s current needs. To ensure this, she calls for an entirely elected Constituent Assembly.

Lalita said that amending only parts of the Constitution by an unelected Constituent Assembly will not be useful, since it is likely that, like the 2017 Constitution, many people will not accept the resulting amendments but will be told to just approve it so that something can get done. However, she said that ‘just approving’ a new Constitution will not resolve problems facing the country if people’s rights are still limited. Instead, it will lead to more campaigns for amendments.

She said that the authorities should listen to the people, since those who backed the petition did so even if they do not have much free time and because they wanted to make their voice heard.

“Give the management, the planning, the decision-making back to the people in their localities more than the state,” Lalita said. “I want a constitution that guarantees everyone’s rights. I want it to be universal rather than just charity for the poor or having to prove that you’re poor to receive welfare or other rights. A good constitution should improve people’s quality of life.”

Representatives of the People’s Constitution Drafting Group at the ECT office on 30 August. During their press conference, they displayed the envelopes the forms were delivered in and the boxes used to store the signed forms.

On 25 December, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Phumtham Wechayachai announced that the Cabinet’s Constitutional Amendment Committee will propose that the first referendum will ask one question: “Do you agree with having a new Constitution without amendments to Chapter 1, General Provisions, and Chapter 2, the Monarchy?”

Although Yingcheep expects that the referendum will happen, he question how much public participation will be involved in the process and whether people will feel like the new Constitution is theirs.

“If it happens, I want it to be good, for the people to really take part in it, and so they can feel that they had written something. It’s not going to be the best. It has to be able to be changed in the future, but at least this Constitution will be one we value, that we think about it like the 1997 version,” he said.

“Whether all of this can happen or not depends on the process that they are building, but with this referendum question, if we really have to have a referendum, I think it will fall apart.”

The network is facing a difficult year campaigning for a people’s Constitution, Yingcheep said, but the fact that over 200,000 people backed their petition made him feel like he could tackle bigger issues because he believes people would join him.

“We will do things we never before thought we could do. I want everyone to believe in their own power and let’s face 2024 together. I will be asking you to join us in a lot of things I can’t tell you about yet because I’m still coming up with ideas, but there at least 2 things, which are a people’s amnesty bill and a new Constitution,” Yingcheep said.

“We have to take part in every step of the process to push for it to come true. I hope to see everyone’s power like before and even more.”

Prachatai's Person of the Year is chosen by votes from our editorial team. Read about our past Person of the Year:

Person of the Year 2021: Worawan Sae-aung

Person of the Year 2022: the Will of the People Fund

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