“Distortion” of Thai draft constitution is a crime, ahead of referendum

Photo: Prayut Chan-ocha/Wikimedia Commons

By Loke Hoe Yeong

On World Press Freedom Day on Tuesday (May 3), the Thai Journalist Association called for a lifting of media restrictions imposed following the military coup in 2014, which was predictably dismissed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha.

The move also follows news on 27 April of an unidentified organisation in Thailand falling afoul of a new law that prohibits the “distortion” of the draft new constitution for the country, which would be put to a national referendum on 7 August this year. That constituted the first charge brought under the law, which was just approved the previous week. The law provided for a ten-year jail sentence for those “forcing or influencing” a voter in casting a vote, or in not casting one at all.

It appears that the organisation in question is a Facebook group, with members being based in the country’s northeastern province of Khon Kaen, who have been charged by Thailand’s election commission for posting “foul and strong” comments online criticising the draft constitution.

Already, a former parliamentarian from the Puea Thai party, Worachai Hema, was summoned by the military for “attitude adjustment” after he criticised the draft constitution when it was released in March.

The draft document was the military junta’s second attempt at a new constitution following the May 2014 coup.

In September 2015, the National Reform Council, a 250-member body appointed to oversee reforms, to vote down a more liberal draft, apparently at the instigation of the junta.

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted from power in a previous coup in 2006, said that the constitution, if enacted, would make Thailand “like Myanmar before [Myanmar’s] political reforms”.

“It’s as if we are in the 18th century,” he said in a separate interview.

How likely will voters pass the latest constitution?

So will voters pass the draft constitution, come 7 August?

A referendum on the previous constitution, drafted after the 2006 coup, was passed by a vote of 57% to 42%. Provinces in the northeast region of Thailand had largely rejected that constitutional draft, but the military’s support held strong in the southern provinces. It was, until then, the only national referendum in the history of Thailand.

This time round, the outcomes appears to be less certain.

Both sides of the political divide in Thailand have criticised the latest constitutional draft – both the Democrat Party leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, as well as by politicians and activists loyal to Thaksin Shinawatra.

Politicians and political groups have argued that the law still permits them to highlight the advantages and disadvantages of the draft constitution, and have hence continued to express their views on the document.

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), as the military junta is officially known, will have the power to appoint members to fill almost all of the 250 seats in the Senate. Six seats reserved for military and police chiefs. It is this provision in particular that have led critics to compare the constitution to Myanmar before the November 2015 general election.

Moreover, in the event of a deadlock, the new House of Representatives would be able to choose a non-elected individual as prime minister – a provision which is equally disdained by both the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps.

What would happen if voters reject the constitution? A spokesman for the drafting committee had said earlier this year that the military junta could pick one from among 19 previous constitutions of Thailand, from the past eight decades, if the referendum resulted in a rejection of the draft constitution.

It would also delay the timeframe for a general election – the point of the previous military junta’s campaign in the 2007 referendum on the last constitution – although the approval of the latest draft would cement a highly undemocratic political system.

Dismissing calls for public debate involving political groups, the Constitution Drafting Committee has said that they will train around 300,000 civil servants and volunteers to educate the public about the draft constitution.

Those who supported the May 2014 coup saw it as a means of rescuing the country from deep political and social divisions.

As reported by Reuters, some see the crisis as a struggle over who will hold power once the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, aged 88, ends.