BANGKOK — Thais will not be allowed to independently campaign either for or against their new constitution before it goes before voters in a referendum as soon as January.
As the military government encounters rising internal and external dissent to the draft charter, a top junta official said yesterday that public debate over its merits and deficiencies will only be allowed at officially sanctioned forums organized by the Election Commission and balanced accounts in recognized news media. Organized rallies and campaigns will be forbidden under the existing injunction against political gatherings.
“The Election Commission will arrange for the two sides to express their opinions,” Deputy Prime Minister Visanu Krue-ngam said yesterday. “As for campaigning, it cannot be done, whether to accept or reject the charter.”
He echoed comments made Tuesday by the chairman of Thailand’s Election Commission.
“Campaigns to influence the referendum cannot be done, whether to tell people to accept or reject the charter draft,” Suphachai Somcharoen said. “If anyone or any group comes out to campaign about the referendum, they will be guilty of violating NCPO order No. 7, which bans political assemblies.”
The first hurdle for the charter, which represents the future laws of the land, will be when it’s put to the junta-appointed National Reform Council’s 200 members for an up-or-down vote next month. A hardliner faction of about 20 council members have actively called for it to be rejected in favor of keeping the junta in power for another two years to complete its reform campaign.
Players from both sides of the political divide have panned the proposed constitution as undemocratic.
Should the draft charter pass the 6 Sept. vote, it will go to national referendum in January.
In the meantime, people can can still express their opinions “through the media,” Visanu said.
“For example, on TV shows that invite both sides to join. That is expression of opinion, not campaigning … If they talk through the media, they can do it,” he said. “They can talk about anything. There will be no punishment. Because that is an expression of opinion.”
Visanu did not mention whether expression via other platforms – such as social media – will be accepted. He also admitted that “the line between campaigning and expressing opinion will be difficult to discern.”
Ultimately he said the power to decide will like with the commission.
“It will be the duty of the Election Commission to take care and ensure that both sides will have equal treatment,” he said.
Political activities and public protests of any kind have been banned in Thailand since the military junta seized power from an elected government in May 2014. Since the military takeover, the junta has ordered that discussion about politics be confined to forums sanctioned by the regime, and instructed independent organizers to seek permission from the military first.
On Tuesday junta chairman and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha lashed out at politicians who have been critical of the new charter, saying that “They have no right to suggest [their opinion] to anyone. Do they have the right? Why do the media give a platform to these people?”
Visanu, the Deputy Prime Minister, told reporters yesterday that the government will have to keep its the lid on free speech in the months leading to the referendum for the sake of stability.
“To say whether people should accept or not accept the constitution can be done. It’s not something strange,” Visanu said. “But they cannot hold rallies. They cannot mobilize people.
If they talk through the media, they can. They can talk anything. There will be no punishment. Because that is expression of opinion. We are worried that if we permit rallies to be held, their opposition will do the same. Country will be divided. I can see that image already. The government can see what’s going to happen. That’s why I am telling you, you cannot do that. It’s forbidden by the laws.”
Photo: Michael Coghlan
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