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Thai Ombudsman Seeks Constitutional Court Review of Referendum Law

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2016-06-01
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An official with Thailand’s Election Commission in Bangkok shows a sample ballot for an upcoming constitutional referendum, April 11, 2016.
An official with Thailand’s Election Commission in Bangkok shows a sample ballot for an upcoming constitutional referendum, April 11, 2016.
AFP

The Thai Ombudsman’s office said Wednesday it would ask the Constitutional Court to rule on whether a government ban on misleading or rude speech about a referendum over a draft charter is unconstitutional.

The office was sending a letter to the court to ask it to review, interpret and clarify Section 61, a clause of a new law that stipulates rules for speech during the run-up to a referendum set for Aug. 7, a spokesman said. The referendum marks the first time that Thais will be going to the polls since a military-led government seized power in May 2014.

If the court rules that Section 61 conflicts with Thailand’s existing constitution, the section will be voided, Rakskesha Sae-chay, the secretary general of the Ombudsman’s office, told reporters in Bangkok.

“It is unclear, ambiguous. Citizens will be confused by the wording and will not dare express their opinion, which contradicts the intention of the referendum. As well, each individual official may interpret it wrongly and unlawfully prosecute citizens,” Rakskesha said of the language in the section.

The Office of the Ombudsman is a public body led by three ombudsmen whose mandate is to consider and investigate complaints against civil servants, government employees or agencies. Among its duties, the ombudsman can refer a law or regulation to the Constitutional Court, “if, in the opinion of the Ombudsman, a law, regulation or action of an individual is in violation of the Constitution. …”

In this case, the Ombudsman is asking the court to review Section 61, which says that “anyone who publishes inaccurate information” via print, TV or electronic media or information that could be construed as being “aggressive, rude, seditious or threatening people to vote” on referendum day, could be prosecuted.

So far, since the regulation was passed in April, at least 10 Thai citizens have been arrested for allegedly posting “disturbing” messages that contained “foul language” about the controversial referendum via social media, according to Thailand’s Election Commission.

Because violations of Section 61 are considered a criminal offense, “the law must be clear to begin with,” Rakskesha of the ombudsman’s office said, warning, “In the end, the referendum will end up causing turmoil rather than creating order.”

‘People are vulnerable’

The ombudsman’s referral of the case to the court stems from a complaint lodged by iLaw, a human rights advocacy group.

Section 61 deprives people of their right to free speech and information about the referendum, which will be crucial to Thailand’s future, iLaw Director Jon Ungpakorn told BenarNews.

“People are vulnerable to being prosecuted with punishment as harsh as 10 years in jail. I hope the Constitutional Court will consider this issue sooner rather than later,” he said.

Thais have the right to debate with one another during the months leading up to the vote, he said.

“Each citizen has the right to listen to different opinions, and to agree or disagree with the draft charter. This is important because the new charter will be hard to amend,” he said.

The proposed future constitution has drawn widespread criticism from human rights advocates because it would allow the junta to hand pick all 250 members of the Thai Senate, including six officers from the military’s top brass.

According to a survey done by People Poll Thailand, a group that conducts polls via a Smart phone application, the draft charter that was unveiled on March 31 is deeply unpopular.

Eighty-four percent of 2,095 respondents said they would vote against the charter, compared with only 7.7 percent who said they would vote for it. Six percent of respondents said they had yet to make up their minds over the issue while another 2 percent declined to respond, according to People Poll.

‘I cannot thank the NCPO’

In other political news out of Thailand on Wednesday, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the formal name for the junta – lifted a ban that had prevented political activists from traveling abroad.

NCPO spokesman Col. Piyapong Klinphand told BenarNews that Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha had signed an order on Tuesday that revoked a two-year-old ban for foreign travel by activists, critics and journalists who had been summoned for so-called “attitude adjustment” detention sessions by the military.

“The atmosphere is calm and is in order,” Piyapong said in explaining why the ban was being lifted.

“This [ban] has been on since May 22 [2014] and I think it is quite long now, so I relax it, everyone can relax,” Prayuth told reporters in Bangkok earlier this week, according to local media.

Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior writer with Khaosod English, was among local journalists who have been summoned for attitude adjustments. In his case, the military has called him in twice for such sessions in the 24 months since the junta took over in Thailand.

“I cannot thank the NCPO because, for more than two years, my freedom has been deprived and many more of us were summoned for attitude adjustment,” Pravit told BenarNews.

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