More suppression expected as Thai referendum draws near

More suppression expected as Thai referendum draws near

Thailand is still months away from an Aug 7 referendum on its draft Constitution, but confrontations are already brewing.

At the weekend, the army banned a forum on the draft charter in the northern city of Chiang Mai. In Pattaya, police reportedly trailed and stopped activists from campaigning against the document.

Security officials raided the house of a former member of Parliament whose party has announced its opposition to the draft, and seized thousands of allegedly "seditious" red plastic bowls bearing the well wishes of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, meant as gifts to supporters during the upcoming Thai new year.

Army chief Teerachai Nakwanich announced that a list of potential detainees has been drawn up for a new intensive attitude adjustment "course" for persistently troublesome critics at military camps nationwide. Soldiers as well as paramilitary officers, meanwhile, now brandish wide-ranging police powers to suppress a variety of offences, including human trafficking and crimes against public peace and order.

"The referendum on the draft Constitution is also inevitably a referendum on the NCPO's performance," says International Crisis Group analyst Matthew Wheeler, referring to the ruling junta's formal name, the National Council for Peace and Order. "They have already stepped up suppression of critics, and this trend is likely to continue in advance of the referendum."

It has been almost two years since the military seized power from a Puea Thai party-run government crippled by street protests and judicial rulings. Coup-maker and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has sought to quash dissent in a society unsettled by political turbulence and the frail health of 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej. While the Premier has insisted that elections will take place next year, the polls - according to the junta's road map - can be conducted only with a new Constitution in place.

But the draft charter itself is contentious. It will feature a Senate fully appointed by the junta for five years. It proposes a new mechanism to resolve the kingdom's frequent political deadlocks, which in the past triggered calls for royal intervention. In the event of a future crisis, the president of the Constitutional Court would be empowered to broker a solution - a scenario which critics allege allows future elected governments to be ousted even without a coup.

Meanwhile, another section of the draft charter is unexpectedly raising heckles. It calls for the kingdom's guarantee of 12 years of free education to be moved forward, so that kindergarten schooling will be available to all children. While the idea was to school children in their formative years, it will force senior high school students whose families are deemed to be financially sound to pay school fees.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Pitch Pongsawat thinks the unintended hot potato may galvanise even more opposition to the charter. Given the Puea Thai's quick rejection of the draft, the attention has fallen on the Democrat Party, whose former members were key leaders in the protests that led to the 2014 coup. Yet the Democrats, citing an existing ban on political gatherings, have remained ambivalent.

Former Democrat legislator Sirichok Sopha thinks his party's stance would make no difference in this political climate.

"People will be led to the direction that the government is campaigning," he says.

In the Aug 7 referendum, no-shows will not be counted in the overall tally, which will lower the bar for the draft charter to be enacted.

Yet all these conditions will still not guarantee any particular outcome, warn analysts. The junta has kept mum on what alternatives Thailand would have if the draft charter is rejected. As with most things, it is keeping its cards close to its chest.

This article was first published on April 7, 2016.
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