BANGKOK — Two days after the military government of Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha set up what it calls “peace centers” across the nation to enforce the Election Commission’s referendum law, even the head of that body is unclear what their mandate is.
Playing down concerns the centers, manned by officials and soldiers, will be used to hijack the polls, the man in charge of staging the referendum on the junta-backed draft charter said they were akin to “security guards” and would not overstep the electoral body’s authority.
“The centers are like security guards, while we are the owner of the company. They just offer us guards to look after [the referendum],” Somchai said Tuesday.
As to how the centers will coordinate with his commission, Somchai said he is clueless at this stage. No letter had been sent yet, and Somchai was not quite sure who was actually running the centers except for possibly the governors of each province.
However the commissioner said the centers, set up at both the provincial and district levels throughout the kingdom Sunday, cannot manipulate the vote counting process as alleged by some critics.
“That’s not possible. Holding a referendum is the work of the commission,” he said. “I don’t think they have anything to do with the referendum vote.”
“I think the media know more details [than I do],” Somchai admitted, adding that he hopes the centers should invite representatives of the EC at provincial level to discuss plans in order to make their work “complete.”
Critics such as Chiang Mai University law lecturer Somchai Preechasilpakul said the government-run centers “further undermine the credibility” of the whole referendum process, however.
“This is a center set up to monitor those who oppose the draft charter,” he said.
And, he added, the junta-led government can hardly be considered a neutral party at this point.
“It’s clear that the government is a party to the conflict,” Somchai said.
Col. Winthai Suvari, spokesman for the junta known as the National Council for Peace and Order, also played down concerns the centers could be used to affect the outcome by influencing voters or suppressing opponents of the charter draft.
“This is an ad hoc unit to ensure that the situation is orderly, and all state mechanisms support it,” Winthai said. “Soldiers are just there to beef up security.”
They are operated under are the Interior Ministry, Winthai said, and may call upon soldiers and police to assist with ensuring an orderly environment for the Aug. 7 referendum.
The move is unlikely to bolster the confidence of neutral elections observers concerned the suppression of debate and criminalization of campaigning will make for “free and fair” elections.
The referendum law outright criminalized campaigning for or against the charter, but only the handful of people publicly opposing it have been arrested and prosecuted.
Former Election Commissioner Gothom Arya said it’s unfortunate the law disallowed citizens to participate in monitoring the polls and expressed concern about the ad hoc centers.
“I don’t know how district chiefs will coordinate with the commission because the truth is, the job of ensuring that elections are clean, fair and orderly falls to the Election Commission,” Gothom said.
He added that authorities need to ensure there are no overlapping roles between the two, and any soldiers involved need to not overstep their roles.
Commissioner Somchai said he thinks the centers will deal with those breaking laws, such as holding public rallies, which was forbidden by the referendum law.
He didn’t believe those at the centers will be responsible for deciding whether what one says about the charter draft is truthful or vulgar, and thus legal or not, however.