Free speech must prevail
The prime minister's orders to the armed forces and now to state agencies to approach voters and monitor political speech are highly troubling. The twin justifications that are claimed do not hold water. Educating voters and exposing outlandish promises is not the job of either the state's military or civil servants. These orders should be clearly withdrawn.
At first blush, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appears to be taking the same route as during the lead-up to the August, 2016, referendum on the constitution. Heavy intimidation was used to try to silence the opinions of those who opposed the text of that constitution -- now, with amendments, the official national charter.
Several people singled out in that intimidation campaign are still in prison, after prosecution on charges such as spreading false information or causing public confusion.
These are the same terms the prime minister used last Friday. He sent out his Government House spokesman, the former Bangkok Shutdown organiser Buddhipongse Punnakanta, to try to explain. Gen Prayut "voiced concern", said Mr Buddhipongse, that parties intend to "roll out policies to woo voters ahead of the upcoming election" -- whenever that serially delayed event might happen.
Mr Buddhipongse, ironically a former (and effective) member of parliament for the Democrat Party, tried to make that sound like a bad thing. But it is not. Rolling out policies and announcing them widely to the public is exactly what all political parties should be doing. And the bottom line is, yes, the goal is to convince citizens to vote for the policies of the party to get a voice in the Lower House and the government.
The target of Gen Prayut's attempted intimidation this year is what he has criticised since he suddenly declared a military coup close to five years ago.
Now, as then, he blames parties for leading the country into nothing but trouble. Now, as then, he believes parties will promise anything to get elected. Now -- as opposed to then -- governments are prohibited by the supreme law from enacting "populist" policies.
The constitution, however, is exactly what Gen Prayut is ignoring or worse. It is quite clear on this question. Every Thai citizen "shall enjoy the liberty to express his opinion, make speech, write, print, publicise, and make expression by other means.
Restriction on such liberty shall not be permitted". Even if he feels strongly about monitoring and trying to prevent free speech by politicians and their parties, the constitution written under his direction forbids it.
There is no reason for members of the Royal Thai Armed Forces to approach citizens under the pretext of educating them on politics. The military has nothing to teach the public about elections, government or democracy.
On the contrary, this is the time for the all-male National Council for Peace and Order and the troops they command to listen respectfully to citizens about these subjects.
Populist policies are a legal issue for parliament, not for untrained, biased and unrestrained soldiers and civil servants who are still protected by amnesty.
So far as election campaigning is concerned, Gen Prayut has yet to learn that the correct answer to abuses of free speech is more free speech.
Thais are perfectly capable of picking the good from the bad in political campaigning.
Outrageous, silly and obviously pandering promises deserve to be exposed by opposing parties, the media and other voters.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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