In June 2016, 13 activists were arrested for distributing "Vote No" leaflets in Bangkok in the lead-up to the constitutional referendum. They were charged with the crime of "breaking the law".
The first hearing was held for 12 of them in a civilian court in Samut Prakan on Monday after their cases were transferred from a military court.
This legal harassment proves just how harsh the military regime has been in implementing repressive tactics to prevent people from expressing opposing views about the 2016 draft charter. With new and growing calls for a new constitution to be drafted, the 2016 referendum cannot be used to dismiss these demands and legitimise the current one.
Instead, the flawed 2016 referendum only stands as a reminder of why the current charter should be scrapped and the people be allowed to participate in writing a new one.
The 12 activists were among at least 130 people charged for violating an order of the now-dissolved National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and the 2016 Referendum Act. The NCPO prohibited public gatherings of five or more people, while the act forbade the publication of messages and images that can be deemed inaccurate, inciteful, aggressive, threatening or rude. Violators of the act could face up to 10 years in prison.
Apart from such restrictive strategies, most voters were not provided with sufficient information about the charter's contents. The Election Commission also failed to deliver copies of the draft to their homes, while the regime used every means at its disposal to promote the charter.
In the referendum, the majority voted in favour, partly because they wanted the country to move forward and the regime did not really offer them an alternative in case the draft was rejected.
The actual drafting process also lacked meaningful public participation.
Since the charter came into effect in April 2017, people have started to see how it was designed to help the regime and its leader, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, to continue in power. The most undemocratic and most criticised feature of the charter is the NCPO hand-picking 250 senators to serve for a five-year transition period. These senators were allowed to join a Lower House vote to choose a prime minister, who does not have to be an MP. And all of them voted for Gen Prayut.
The charter's many undemocratic features as well as some laws passed by the NCPO, along with its engrained influence over independent organisations, have helped NCPO leaders to prolong their stay in the form of the current government, which also lacks checks and balances.
Apart from letting the regime continue, this charter has also given rise to conflicts and has hindered the development of democracy.
Even though a House panel has been set up to study amendments to the constitution, not many people hold out much hope. The panel is dominated by MPs from the government camp who are unlikely to support any drastic changes or the drafting of a new charter. So, sacrifices must be made. A new constitution cannot be drafted with support from the government camp and the Senate. Any charter amendment requires support from one-third of senators.
Several advocacy and civil society groups have called for a constitutional drafting committee to be elected by the people. This is certainly a good place to start. Thailand can never become a democratic state without a people's charter.