- - Monday, July 4, 2016

BANGKOK — Thailand’s new constitution was supposed to bring at least the appearance of legitimacy and normalcy for the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

But with a month to go before a national referendum, critics and human rights activists say a law essentially banning any real discussion of the document is just the latest sign that little is likely to change two* years after Mr. Prayuth seized power in a military coup.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court last week upheld a law that metes out 10 years in prison to anyone who voices an opinion — pro or con — about the government-backed draft constitution or campaigns for or against it before a nationwide Aug. 7 referendum. Monitoring of the vote by opposition groups, the United Nations or international rights activists is also blocked.

The prime minister, the former commander of the Royal Thai Army and the head of the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order, revealed that he will not give up his office even in the unlikely event that Thai voters reject the constitution.

“If the draft constitution does not pass, a new one has to be written,” he said.

The court’s decision and Mr. Prayuth’s hard-line stance are severe disappointments to dissidents, local media, and Thai and international human rights groups that hoped the debate on the constitution would open some space for increased political activity in the country, a key U.S. ally in the region. Many were characterizing the referendum as a popularity test of the junta as it enters a third year in power.

Mr. Prayuth appears determined to keep the constitutional debate from escaping his control. A Thai court jailed seven activists Friday for campaigning against a military-backed draft, the Reuters news agency reported.

Amnesty International, in a statement after the arrests, criticized the government’s “crude tactics.”

“If a small group of activists cannot hand out leaflets, then what hope is there that the rights to freedoms of expression and assembly will be respected in the run-up to the referendum?” asked Amnesty official Champa Patel.

Although she was careful to refrain from outright campaigning, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was ousted as prime minister in Mr. Prayuth’s May 2014 bloodless coup, has been meeting discreetly with gatherings of supporters in parts of the country where her Pheu Thai Party — the “Red Shirts” is strong.

The visits “show to her opponent and also to the public that, ‘We are still here and there is a huge support for us,’” Kan Yuenyong, executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit think tank, recently told The Associated Press. “I think this is a very important message, a hidden message, that she would like to send to the public.”

Mr. Prayuth’s plan is for the referendum to be followed by national elections next year for parliament’s 500-seat House of Representatives, plus the junta’s appointment of a 250-member Senate. The Senate would include six seats for the head of the army, navy, air force and national police, plus the military’s supreme commander and defense permanent secretary.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling was on a case filed by a pro-democracy group, Internet Dialogue on Law Reform — known as iLaw — along with academics and others.

They questioned the legitimacy of the draft referendum act’s Section 61, which warns: “Anyone who publishes text, images or sound, through either newspaper, radio, television, electronic media or other channels, that is either untruthful, harsh, offensive, rude, inciting or threatening, with the intention that voters will either not exercise their right to vote, or vote in a certain way, or not vote, will be considered as a person creating confusion so that the vote will not proceed properly.”

The Constitutional Court said Section 61 was legal under Mr. Prayuth’s interim constitution, which he unveiled shortly after leading the May 2014 coup.

“It does not pose any problem pertaining to its legality under the 2014 interim constitution,” the court said last week.

As a result of the law, “people do not dare to express their opinions on the draft charter, as they are afraid of being prosecuted,” said iLaw Director Jon Ungpakorn. “Even wearing a T-shirt with messages in favor of, or against, the draft could lead to 10 years’ imprisonment.”

Government support

Mr. Prayuth’s supporters say he has brought a measure of stability to a country wracked by factionalism and weak civilian government. The new constitution, they say, will guide this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation to peace and prosperity.

“Many people are sick and tired of political games and politicians in general, and many are also glad that the military took power and happy with the peace and order today,” businessman Chira Sirisambhand, 59, said in an interview.

Mr. Chira’s relatives include generals and other military officers, and his ancestors served in senior military positions dating back to a 17th-century Buddhist kingdom in Ayutthaya — in today’s central Thailand.

He said he completely agrees with the junta’s limits on publicly debating or campaigning for or against the draft.

“Why? Because the groups that are against the referendum can and will just say anything against it, and their supporters will just blindly support it.

“A clash of minds can just lead to another confrontation, physically or ideologically. We don’t need this,” Mr. Chira said.

If the referendum fails, Mr. Prayuth said, he will not follow the example of British Prime Minister David Cameron, who resigned after the Brexit vote.

“Do you want me to resign? I will not resign,” Mr. Prayuth told reporters last week after some Thai politicians suggested he tie his own political future to the outcome of the national referendum, as Mr. Cameron did.

The British prime minister “did not come to power in the same way I did. His country did not have the problems ours does,” Mr. Prayuth said.

Still, Mr. Prayuth and his Red Shirt opponents approached the United Nations to help ease fears about confrontations over the constitutional vote.

After Mr. Prayuth’s 30-minute telephone call to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Ban’s spokesperson said the U.N. leader “stressed that an open and inclusive debate would be essential to ensuring the legitimacy of the constitution and achieving national unity.”

The junta is allowing some regime-monitored discussions among selected people, but authorities have stopped unfettered debate or public demonstrations for or against the draft.

Police on June 19 also stopped pro-election Red Shirts from assigning civilians nationwide to staff self-styled “anti-fraud” centers to monitor the referendum.

“Authorities informed [the Red Shirts] that it is against the law to set up the centers,” said Thawip Netniyom, secretary-general of the National Security Council.

“There is a political motive behind the setting-up of the centers. We are afraid that people may fall victim to distorted information,” said junta spokesman Col. Piyapong Klinpan.

Red Shirts, officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, reportedly gave the United Nations a petition focusing on Thailand’s lack of free speech to discuss the referendum.

Some people worry that the constitutional crisis may become a protracted legal squabble that could delay elections.

“The problem is that the draft constitution is not a liberal one. It was designed to entrust the power into the hands of the bureaucracy, civilian and military,” Kasit Piromya, 72, said in a June 5 interview.

Mr. Kasit is a member of the 200-seat National Reform Steering Assembly appointed by Mr. Prayuth in October to suggest ways to fix Thailand.

The next constitution will be Thailand’s 20th since 1932. A dozen military coups abolished charters, and others were created after political feuds. As with previous constitutions, the draft does not outlaw coups.

 

*Due to an editing error, the original story misstated the number of years since the coup took place. It occurred in 2014.

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