Thailand Counting Down to Controversial Referendum

Don Pathan
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160721-TH-referendum-analysis-620.jpg An activist reads banned charter-related material during a protest at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center against a military crackdown on discussion and debate ahead of a constitutional referendum, July 16, 2016.

The Thai people are set to vote next month on a new constitution, but a crackdown on dissent is preventing them from debating its merits, critics complain.

The outcome of the Aug. 7 referendum will signal whether Thailand can return to a path of democracy after two years of military rule or whether the generals, who have promised elections next year, will use it to tighten their hold on power, observers say.

Opponents argue that the draft charter will cement a political role for the military. They see the upcoming vote as an empty democratic exercise, because Thais cannot openly voice their concerns about the proposed constitution. The critics cite how the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – the formal name for Thailand’s junta – has clamped down on free speech in the lead-up to the vote.

“Only the conservative elite and the anti-electoral politics people are included in the process,” Puangthong Pawakapan, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, told BenarNews.

“They [the military] want to have a weak elected government so that the old power can interfere easily,” she added.

Sunai Phasuk of the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the junta and members of its appointed Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) have “broadly and arbitrarily” interpreted criticism and dissenting views as “false information and a threat to national security.”

“As a result, the only source of information about the draft constitution for many voters comes from the junta-appointed CDC, the military, the election commission and other government agencies – all of which have taken the position that the proposed constitution would benefit the Thai people,” Sunai said.

The critics point to some of the most controversial articles in the draft charter, including the appointment of 250 senators by the NCPO, which would have much the same power as elected members of Thailand’s 500-seat parliament.

The draft also stipulates that the heads of the army, navy, air force, national police, armed forces supreme command and permanent secretary would occupy six of the 250-appointed senatorial seats – thereby preserving the military’s grip on power.

The fact that a prime minister won’t necessarily come from a pool of elected parliamentarians, and that laws passed by the junta under an interim constitution would be written into the new charter, also figure among points of concern for its critics.

The ‘yes’ camp

But supporters of the junta say that Thailand’s military rulers, who came to power through a coup in May 2014, are working to restore peace and stability to the country after more than a decade of political unrest.

They blame the country’s elected politicians for the years of turmoil and justify the blanket ban on discussion during the run-up to the referendum as temporary but necessary.

Last week, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha authorized government officials to shut down any radio or television stations airing material deemed a threat to national security.

On Thursday, Thailand’s broadcasting and telecommunications regulatory agency announced a 30-day ban on Peace TV, a program aired by the opposition Red Shirts, saying the move was needed to prevent discord and instability in the country, according to a report in the Bangkok Post.

The previous week also saw the newsroom of the Prachatai, an online news outlet, being raided after one of its reporters was arrested with university students who were campaigning for a “no” vote in the referendum.

“Arresting peaceful activists is bad enough, but jailing a journalist for reporting on the vote-no campaign is a serious blow to press freedom in Thailand and any hopes that the vote on the constitution will be a fair one,” Sunai said.

Sunai called on the U.N. and the international community to ratchet up pressure on Thailand to end arbitrary arrests of dissenters, as well as drop criminal charges against all those who express their political opinions peacefully.

‘Peace and order’

The government, however, has made it clear that “inappropriate campaigning” against the draft charter is outlawed and punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Earlier on, police raided the headquarters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), to prevent it from setting up referendum-monitoring centers nationwide. UDD is a political faction aligned with the Pheu Thai Party of deposed ex-prime ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, Yingluck.

Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon who draws support from poor rural folk through his populist policies, was ousted in a coup in 2006. Yingluck served as Thailand’s last elected prime minister before being toppled in the coup that brought Prayuth to power two years ago. Thaksin has gone into a self-imposed exile to avoid jail-time after being convicted for corruption.

The current circumstances in Thailand called for “peace and order,” NCPO spokesman Col. Piyapong Klinphan told reporters.

The NCPO has not infringed on the rights of the people as long as they respect the law, he maintained.

Piyapong added that distorted information from government critics about the referendum could be driving the ongoing international pressure on Thailand.

‘Winning is winning’

Somchai, a Bangkok taxi driver who asked that his last name not be used, said he wasn’t planning to vote in the referendum.

“It’s about their popularity,” he told BenarNews, referring to the junta. “It has no impact on how I make my living.”

Despite voters like Somchai deciding to stay away from the polls come the first Sunday in August, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kreangam has expressed confidence that the referendum will succeed even if turnout is low.

“Even if the margin is just a few thousand, winning is winning,” Wissanu told reporters at Government House in Bangkok on July 16, according to The Nation newspaper.


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