Open charter up to debate
The government has issued a public warning to its own officials not to try to convince anyone how to vote on the draft constitution in the Aug 7 referendum. This is prior to the start of a massive campaign by the military regime. Thousands of officials are about to conduct door-to-door, village-to-village explanations of the document. It's a brand new system of disseminating propaganda, and particularly strange in the era of the internet and 100% TV coverage.
The warning to stay completely objective came from Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam. He sounded serious when he said anyone "trying to sway voters' opinions" risks facing legal action. There are two rather obvious problems with this. The first is how voters will even know whether officials are trying to sway their votes with "explanations" of the draft charter. The second is where, and how, voters subjected to unobjective information would press these legal charges.
The entire process of writing the constitution has been shambolic and disorganised. The public was shut out from the start from both of the attempts. The original charter was voted down by the military's parliament. The one currently on the table is the work of a committee headed by the elderly and familiar constitution writer, Meechai Ruchupan, and appointed directly by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
Mr Wissanu, the government's top legal expert, maintains that a massively centralised, top-down campaign to inform the country will result in an informed electorate. It will not. From experience and from Mr Wissanu's description, it is clear that thousands of officials will be handed a written summary of the draft constitution. They will read from it and then, because of a combination of ill training and caution about the legal threat, will stop. It's likely that most questions by most voters will not be answered.
This is because the draft charter is a thick, dense document, unprecedented in national history. One may deride the number of constitutions the country has had, but all had an admirable feature. Every constitution up until 2014 advanced the principles and aims of a free and democratic nation. Gen Prayut's personal, interim constitution reversed that process. His approved draft of Constitution 2016 is another step backwards. The Aug 7 referendum is thus a confusing, convoluted and supremely important question for the country.
So far, the military regime has taken many steps to obfuscate and confound the situation. Gen Prayut and the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) could have encouraged public input for authoring, but blocked all such efforts. They could, and should, be encouraging widespread talks, meetings and debates on Mr Meechai's draft. Instead, the regime has effectively banned public debate. Officials will bring the word from the top down to every village and household in the land, according to Mr Wissanu.
It is currently impossible to conceive of a worse system. It is cruel, because in a world of mass communication, the government is resorting to subterfuge and secrecy. People of Village A can't even know what officials answerable only to the regime have told people in Village B.
Meanwhile, the country's only planned election cannot be discussed over TV and radio. All media, and all interested parties are effectively under gag orders. No one doubts the military regime is willing and even eager to start making examples of those who voice criticism of the draft charter the wrong way. The regime should allow unrestricted debate, starting with academics and the media.
Bangkok Post editorial column
These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.
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