By Pravit Rojanaphruk
Senior Staff Writer
If not handled fairly, the referendum on the junta-sponsored draft charter could light the fuse of a political time bomb rather than be the solution some hope it will prove.
In truth, the vote now planned for Aug. 7 looks increasingly to also be a de facto referendum on the junta, aka the National Council for Peace and Order, itself.
For its part, the junta through its subordinates has harassed and prevented Anurak Jeantawanich from freely campaigning against the charter, stifled debate by refusing to relax its ban of political gatherings, forbade a bookshop from discussing it, and more.
Such actions curb space for critical voices and fair debate on what will be the foundation of law in the land, therefore ensuring the referendum cannot be considered free and fair.
With just under four months to go before the promised vote, it will be too late come August unless immediate steps are taken to permit open and fair debate on its merits by allowing those calling for its rejection to campaign and deliberate.
Seeing charter supporters campaign freely, often with support from the military regime, while its opponents are silenced only makes a mockery of the referendum.
The climate of fear has reached the point where a veteran Thai election observation confided that he and his peers are still deliberating whether to express any concern about the process.
I told him the public vote has no chance of being free and fair if they wait until the last few weeks to speak out. If there are no voices pressuring the junta to allow free deliberation on the topic while there’s an ongoing crackdown, many may decide against holding such public discussions before trying, particularly those in rural areas, far from the spotlight and with no connections to save their skin.
At least a group of ambassadors and senior diplomats from 18 E.U. member states sent a clear message Thursday when they met Panyarak Poolthup, a deputy permanent secretary at the Foreign Ministry.
“E.U. Ambassadors called upon the Thai Government to uphold principles of freedom of expression and opinion, and allow all voices to be heard. This is of utmost importance for the referendum in order to be considered the result of a free and fair expression of the will of all people of Thailand and to be accepted,” it read.
Another equally troubling factor is that the junta still won’t show its cards regarding what the Thai people will get if they reject the draft charter, already denounced as undemocratic by many groups including the well-known Nitirat group of law lecturers.
To make matters worse, the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly resolved Thursday to push for a second question to be put to voters in the referendum. They want to ask voters whether members of the Senate, which will be largely and indirectly picked by the junta, to join the house of representatives in selecting the prime minister.
The military dictatorship is forcing people to choose between a charter of its own indirect concoction and an unknown drink which could be more hemlock than elixir of democracy. That they don’t bother laying out the choice fairly and squarely says a lot about their sincerity and honesty toward the Thai people. It’s no surprise that some, like poet Wad Ravi, are now calling this a phony referendum.
Why even bother holding a referendum if they are bent on ensuring it will not become free and fair?
It’s about legitimacy, or barring that, the perception of legitimacy, something the junta did not attain through the coup it staged in May 2014.
The rationale is that if the draft charter is endorsed by the electorate, it will give the impression of a mandate for the junta to share power with a post-election government comprised of elected MPs and those politicians in the Senate, which will be largely and indirectly appointed by the junta itself.
Even if the draft charter is shot down, junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha still reserves the right to revive or combine different past charters and use his absolute (and illegitimate) power under Article 44 of the interim military charter to impose a Franken-constitution that could even be worse for everyone.
The current situation is more than a Catch-22 – it’s nothing short of a ticking time bomb that would be more likely to prolong and deepen the crisis already facing Thailand for another decade.
Thais, particularly the millions opposed to the coup, are virtually held hostage by the regime.
Instead of offering a real light at the end of the tunnel, the public is more likely to get a sham vote on a bogus ballot.