Although Thailand’s junta has banned public criticism of a draft charter in the weeks leading up to next month’s constitutional referendum, the Election Commission suddenly has set aside some time and money so that Thais can debate the crucial vote.
The commission this week announced that it had allocated a seven-day block, which would expire on Aug. 3 – so that limited debates on the charter could take place in the country’s 77 provinces.
Should they happen, the debates would unfold against a backdrop of boycotts of the Aug. 7 referendum by leading parties and a series of arrests of opponents of the proposed charter.
Election Commissioner Somchai Srisuthiyakorn told reporters on Monday that the EC would allocate funds for debates in each of the provinces on or before Aug. 3.
“We do expect a total of some 400 participants from both pro- and anti-charter camps, to debate on the stage for a maximum of three hours,” he said.
Somchai addressed a news conference during a commission-sponsored trip to Samut Prakarn, south of Bangkok, where he observed the printing of ballots for the referendum.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the leader of the Thai junta, had requested that the EC sponsor the debates, Somchai said.
The debates could help turn around public opinions of the draft charter.
According to a recent poll by the National Institute of Development Administration, some 60 percent among 1,500 respondents nationwide have not decided how they will vote in the referendum. About one-third of respondents said they would vote for it while a small percentage said they would vote “no.”
Ban on criticism
The debates would follow a series of arrests of people opposed to the charter. In the run-up to the vote, the junta had imposed a ban on public criticism of it through a new law prohibiting “misleading or rude speech.”
On Wednesday, seven local politicians based in Chiang Mai, were arrested on charges of sedition and distributing misinformation about the draft charter, according to media reports.
Kachen Jiakkhajorn, the mayor of Chang Peauk sub-district, his wife and five others were taken to the 11th Military Circle in Bangkok to face interrogation. The detention stemmed from a confession by a mayoral driver that he was hired by local politicians to disseminated anti-charter leaflets, according to government officials.
In Bangkok, Tassanee Buranupakorn, a former MP with the opposition Pheu Thai party and sister of Kachen’s wife, was also detained by the military as she traveled to meet the police chief over the incident.
A majority of “yes” votes on Aug. 7 would enable the military to tighten its grip on power even though Prayuth and the generals last year pledged to stage general elections by the middle of 2017, observers said.
However, the charter’s aim is to curb corruption among politicians, said Meechai Richuphand, who headed the Constitution Drafting Committee.
Skeptics point out that the charter’s provisions would allow the junta to handpick 250 senators, six reserved for military top brass and the police chief. The senators will pass laws and pick members of independent bodies.
Loyalists of fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup, have staged anti-charter campaigns despite the strict prohibition.
Members of Pheu Thai Party, a third iteration of the political party aligned with Thaksin, also made it clear in March that they would not accept the charter.
“Many parts of the draft constitution conflict with the virtue of democracy and it will create more problems to the nation,” a party statement said.
On Wednesday, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who leads the Democrat Party, also voiced his displeasure about the referendum.
“I don’t accept the draft charter. Repeat, there are no mentions of electoral system and political parties,” he said in a Facebook post. “I don’t accept it because it does not respond to the problems the country has. There are no rules and regulations for the country to get out of the same old troubles.”
Questioned about Abhisit’s statement, Prayuth told reporters: “He looks down on the people as not knowing things or what? Was he meant to insult the intellectuality of the people? People can think and I want them to be strong and independent.”