BANGKOK — Three top leaders of the Redshirt movement met individually with army officers today after being invited to share their opinions on the junta’s national reform efforts.
The politicians were personally welcomed by Lt.Gen. Boontham Oris, the deputy director of the junta’s Center for Reconciliation and Reform, which has organized several state-sanctioned forums for prominent political leaders, academics, and activists.
Independently-organized discussions on politics remain banned by the junta, which seized power from the Redshirt-backed government in May 2014.
The political figures who met with army officers today included Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former Pheu Thai Party politician, and Jatuporn Prompan and Nattawut Saikua, two leaders of the Redshirts’ United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). Reporters were not allowed to observe the discussions.
Speaking to reporters after his meeting, Chaturon said he and the officers discussed the junta’s economic policies, new constitution, reconciliation efforts, and restrictions on freedom of expression.
Chaturon, a former MP and Cabinet Minister, said he told the officers that the upcoming referendum on the new charter, which is being drafted by junta-appointed councils, will be a "waste of money" if the military does not lift its ban on political debates.
"If the referendum is not a free one, it will be a waste of money," Chaturon said. "Let me repeat: don't hold a referendum that binds people's hands and only allows people to express their agreement with the charter, because that will only result in undemocratic rules and unsustainable peace. In the end, conflict will return to the country."
Thailand’s previous constitution, which was dissolved by the military shortly after the coup, was put to a referendum in 2007 but only gave voters the option to accept or reject the document, without specifying an alternative. Critics believe many Thais reluctantly approved the charter – which was also written by a junta-appointed council – out of fear of prolonged military rule.
Chaturon also criticized the junta’s reconciliation efforts, citing the need for free debate in order to address the root causes of Thailand’s protracted political conflict. For much of the past decade, Thailand has been rocked by a power struggle between the mostly-rural and pro-democracy Redshirts, and a network of conservative middle and upper class Bangkokians, bureaucrats, and traditional elites.
Several leaders of the latter movement, commonly referred to as the Yellowshirts, are scheduled to meet with army officers to share their views on the junta's reform campaign tomorrow.
"Throughout all this time, the [junta's] reforms have not addressed the root causes of conflict in this country: that laws were not respected, and the [former] government was unable to enforce the laws," Chaturon said. "So, [the junta leaders] need to ask themselves, do they want peace? If they want sustainable peace, there has to be a widespread exchange of opinions."
Thailand's ruling junta has come under steady criticism from rights groups and foreign democratic governments for its clampdown on freedom of expression over the past year. Under the leadership of former army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the junta has maintained a ban on all political protests, pressured the media into self-censorship, and interfered with at least 73 forums on sensitive political topics.
The junta has also repeatedly postponed the date for national elections. At present, authorities say an election will take place in September 2016, given that the charter is approved and the political climate is deemed stable.
After emerging from his meeting with officers today, UDD chairman Jatuporn said he stressed the need for a "transparent" referendum.
"They need to explain the referendum to foreigners, not only to Thai people," Jatuporn said. "If it is done in a transparent, efficient, and unblemished way, no matter what the result is, the country will be able to move forward. I am not personally afraid that [the junta’s use of] state power will interfere with the referendum, because the more power they use, the more resistance there will be."
He added, "The people who assume the roles as referees must also perform their duties straightforwardly. Don't act like referees in [professional] wrestling, because all of them are unfair."