Debate begins on referendum on new Thai charter

The question is whether those who disapprove of the newly drafted charter will have any real alternatives offered to them by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).

It has been reported that voters will be able to choose either "yes" or "no" to the new charter.

If charter proponents vote "no", that would effectively mean the military junta would stay in power for a few more years while the whole drafting process would continue. If they vote "yes", the country could finally reinstall an elected government; however, the constitution may have clauses that people consider problematic.

It could therefore be concluded that the current political climate may "force" voters to approve the proposed charter referendum, regardless of their actual opinion.

At the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand last week, Phongthep Thepkanchana, a former minister and Pheu Thai MP, also wondered if people would be given genuine choices and if the charter referendum has any true meaning.

He suggested that people should be given a choice between the newly drafted charter and "the people's charter" of 1997, which was abolished by the coup-makers in 2006.

He expressed concern about the 2007 charter referendum and argued that the Council for National Security (CNS) told the people if they vote "no" to the proposed charter, the CNS would then have the authority to pick a previous charter and implement it, saying it gave people little option but to approve the charter.

Some of the tactics employed by the CNS during the 2007 charter referendum were criticised; for example, the CNS warned that a "no" vote could lead to continued instability and possibly violence, while the charter's proponents were given limited media slots and were monitored by the military junta.

However, Wirat Kalayasiri, a legal adviser to the Democrat Party, believed the issue wouldn't became a concern because the charter only has a few controversial issues, such as "outsider PM" and the "all appointed Senate". If those provisions were amended, he said, the people should approve the charter.

"The proposal that the people should be given a choice between the 1997 charter and this new charter is impractical because the referendum is about this charter [not the 1997 one], with some amendments, people should have no problems with this charter," Wirat said.

However, he stressed the importance of freedom of speech, and the fact significant time is needed for both supporters and proponents of the newly drafted charter to communicate to the people, and both be given equal media opportunity to freely present their views.

"Before voting, people must be fully informed and well rounded, they must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of this constitution," Wirat said.