Five more years? Concern as military gets out the vote

Five more years? Concern as military gets out the vote

Critics warn of bias as the government uses more than 300,000 volunteers to spread its message about the charter referendum

The coup-makers have spent over two years asking Thais for a bit more time to restore happiness to the country. Now, they are asking for another five years -- and they've asked community leaders to spread the message.

"Give us another five years, so that there will be no gatherings at Ratchadamnoen Avenue, airport closures or Government House seizures," said Amnuay Nimmano, a member of the National Reform Council, referring to the political protests and street violence which prompted two coups in the past decade.

The five-year wait is part of the extra question that has been added to the referendum, which contains 266 characters and takes up four lines in the ballot paper. The wording has been widely criticised as being too complex, but in essence voters will be asked to decide whether unelected senators should be allowed to help choose a prime minister for the five-year transition period to full democracy.

Pol Lt Gen Amnuay was speaking to a crowd of over 4,000 community leaders who took part in a two-day seminar in Bangkok last month aimed at equipping them with knowledge on the draft constitution. The referendum is on Aug 7. The seminar was organised by the Constitution Drafting Committee and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration.

Up to 300,000 volunteers have been recruited across the country to "disseminate" the draft charter, the CDC says. The nationwide network to educate the public about the draft charter covers village, district and provincial levels. In Bangkok, community leaders from 50 districts will do the same task.

"What was our country like during 2007-2014? Was it peaceful? Which side of the colour-coded politics were you on?" asked Pol Lt Gen Amnuay.

"Yellow!" several audience members called out, referring to the group behind the street protests that led to the coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006. However, the pro-Thaksin People's Power Party was elected to government, leading to more protests, and eventually the May 2014 coup.

"If you aren't afraid that [the 2014 coup] will be a waste, then you don't have to agree [with the added question]," Pol Lt Gen Amnuay concluded.

But with the Election Commission's legal restrictions on campaigning for or against the draft charter, critics say the referendum has been orchestrated to secure the desired outcome of the ruling junta.

They also argue the recent arrests of anti-coup activists, some of who were jailed for distributing leaflets urging a "no" vote, is an indication of double standards.

"The government is targeting those campaigning against the draft charter," said Sawatree Suksri, an assistant professor at Thammasat University's Law Faculty.

"Meanwhile, the Election Commission and the military are providing only the good side of the draft charter, which in effect can be considered campaigning for the public to adopt the charter."

DOUBLE STANDARDS

Politicians and academics have urged the EC to fairly enforce the controversial Section 61 of the Referendum Act, amid concerns it inhibits freedom of expression and instils a climate of fear ahead of the vote.

Clause two of Section 61 says "any person who disseminates texts, pictures, sound in newspaper, radio, television, electronic media or any other channels that are distorted from the fact of having violent, aggressive, rude, inciting or threatening characteristics aiming to induce eligible voters to refrain from voting or vote in a certain way or abstain from voting, shall be regarded as a person who instigates trouble in order to cause disorder in the voting."

Anyone who breaches the section, which was recently introduced by the National Legislative Assembly, faces imprisonment of up to 10 years and a maximum fine of 200,000 baht. The court may also revoke their voting rights for up to five years. The penalty is higher if the wrongdoing is committed by a group of more than five people.

On June 29, the Constitutional Court ruled that the section was in line with the interim charter, following a complaint filed by the Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLaw) group and academics. The iLaw group said certain paragraphs of the section restricted citizens' right to exercise their freedom of expression ahead of the referendum.

Ms Sawatree said the vague wording of the section, however, creates a loophole that makes it easy for authorities to impose double standards on law enforcement.

The law does not make clear what constitutes "violent, aggressive, rude or threatening behaviour," and those urging the public to adopt the charter can escape punishment, while those campaigning against it can face arrest, she said.

"In this way, the law is a tool to silence people into fear," said Ms Sawatree.

The EC has issued its own guidelines on the do's and don'ts related to the Referendum Act, which say declaring your voting intentions or encouraging people to vote a particular way is legal. But Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has taken a far stricter stance, repeatedly stating that even declaring voting intentions is a violation of the Referendum Act. This has led to confusion among the general public.

Ms Sawatree also questioned why no legal action had been taken against prominent former Democrat Suthep Thaugsuban's online campaign last month, in which he announced his wholehearted support for the draft constitution.

The former leader of the People's Democratic Reform Committee, whose street protests paved the way for the 2014 coup, said that the content matched what the movement had campaigned for, and that he would hold daily explanations for why people should vote for the draft charter.

"Anyone who reads the constitution will share my thoughts," he said on a Facebook Live broadcast. "For those who have limited time, just reading the preface will give them an understanding."

SELLING THE CHARTER

The CDC is working with various parties to create a nationwide network of volunteers to educate the public about the draft charter.

They include the territorial defence Ror Dor students, the equivalent of high school military cadets, who are tasked with urging people to vote in the referendum.

The government has also employed hundreds of thousands of local officials to help with their operations at village, district and provincial levels. The "volunteers" are carefully selected by local administrations, with those at the provincial level providing knowledge to 10 officers in each district. The district-level officers then educate four volunteers per village. Those volunteers, who are mostly village chiefs and their assistants, are supposed to travel around their communities door-knocking and spreading the word.

Among the key areas they are expected to educate the public about are the benefits of the charter and how it will affect the quality of life, according to a CDC briefing titled "What provincial volunteers are tasked to do" (see left).

However, those chosen to promote the draft said they are fearful that putting a positive spin on the charter breaches the election law prohibiting campaigning. A 43-year-old local officer for Loei province's Wang Saphung district told Spectrum there was a sense of fear among the other nine volunteers in his district, despite being told by provincial volunteers to remain neutral and stick to the facts.

"I am still afraid that I might say something that will make the volunteers [at the village level] interpret it as influencing a vote [to adopt the draft charter], so I have to be really careful not to say anything that isn't in the documents I received," said the volunteer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The main message I told them was to encourage people to vote."

Like all volunteers who were part of the government's campaign, Aukrachai Dajkunchorn received two leaflets detailing the important aspects of the draft charter, along with the full draft. However, he has no plans to provide details to some 1,500 people living in his community in Chatuchak district, most of who are government officials.

"I'm a bit afraid about the [penalty] for influencing voters, so I cut out the problem by not explaining the details of the charter at all," said the 67 year old. "If I say it's good, there might be some people who think it's bad, and this may cause problems."

Instead, he plans to make three announcements through loudspeakers encouraging people to vote.

When asked whether the volunteers tasked to disseminate the draft charter may induce people to vote in a certain way, election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn cited Section 10 of the Referendum Act. The section allows the CDC and state agencies to disseminate information and campaign in order to provide the public with a "proper understanding of the draft constitution". The law also protects the CDC and government officials, stating that such acts "shall not be regarded as the inducement to a voter not to cast a vote, or to cast a vote in a certain way, or to abstain from voting".

CDC spokesman Chartchai na Chiangmai said all volunteers, including non-officials, were protected by the referendum law as they were appointed by the Interior Ministry to provide information to the public.

Another CDC spokesman, Norachit Sinhaseni, added the most important criteria is that volunteers be neutral in their political views.

He said they had stressed to volunteers not to encourage people to vote yes or no, which is a violation of the Referendum Act.

"The CDC did not set these rules. They were set by the EC and approved by the National Legislative Assembly. We obey the rules and we stress that these volunteers must too," Mr Norachit told Spectrum.

The volunteers were also asked to follow the guidelines in the leaflets and documents the CDC has prepared for them.

"The leaflets provide short but important information as well as new provisions in the draft constitution that should be of interest to the voters," said Mr Norachit. "With this information, the voters should be able to make up their minds by themselves."

Despite the government's attempts to educate the public on the draft charter, an informal survey by iLaw showed that half of 158 respondents do not have any idea the referendum is about the charter. Over 90% were unaware a second question has been added to the referendum.

VOTE FOR WHAT?

The EC has already distributed several million leaflets ahead of the referendum, including one million copies of the draft charter, eight million copies of the important elements of the charter and four million copies of the extra question for the referendum.

Another 17 million leaflets detailing how to vote, as well as 21 important elements of the charter and the added question will be distributed two weeks before the referendum, according to the Election Commission's Mr Somchai.

Ms Sawatree and others have criticised the EC's decision not to distribute more copies of the full text of the 105-page draft charter, saying it would have helped prevent bias. They claim condensed versions of the draft only present the pros.

But Mr Somchai said producing more copies of the full version was no guarantee people would read it. "In reality, no one will read [the full text]," he said.

Puangthong Pawakapan, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University's Political Science Faculty, said the government's prevention of various groups -- including politicians, students and civil society -- from conducting constitution-related campaigns is a deliberate attempt to filter out the negative aspects of the charter.

"[The charter] includes a large number of mechanisms put in place to prevent the prevalence of electoral democracy, which is why it is crucial to allow people with different opinions to provide information to the public," said Ms Puangthong, adding that the charter's length and complicated wording makes it difficult for the public to understand.

The EC expects at least 80% of around 50 million eligible citizens to cast a ballot, with a large number of first-time voters.

Many of the first-time voters are students, says Ms Puangthong, who will likely vote to adopt the draft charter because they believe it will lead to quick elections and eventually the military's disappearance from politics. However, this is a misunderstanding, as the military will continue to have power following the elections, which the government has promised will be held in late 2017.

"Therefore the National Council for Peace and Order is taking advantage of people's misunderstanding. These students have no clue about the constitution, they don't know the topic of the referendum and they don't know whether or not the military will leave after the elections," said Ms Puangthong. "It is quite clear that the constitution is being used to justify the coup-makers, as it seeks to prolong the term of the NCPO."

ARE WE ON THE SAME PAGE?

So far, public education on the referendum has mainly consisted of banners, leaflets, animation, radio ads, TV shows and songs encouraging people to vote.

Last month, the EC released a folk-style referendum canvass song titled On August 7, Be United in a Referendum for Secured Democracy. It has been criticised for looking down upon the northern and northeastern people, many of whom are supporters of the ousted Pheu Thai Party.

In May, a folk song from the CDC also drew criticism from social activists, who said it failed to reflect the substance of the issues addressed in the draft.

The regime has also set up peace-keeping centres across the country to support the EC's handling of the referendum amid complaints from critics they could be tools of the military regime to manipulate the outcome of the vote. The centres have been up and running since July 1 at provincial and district levels.

The move followed the government putting the brakes on the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship's (UDD) plan to set up provincial centres to monitor for fraud during the referendum and the preceding campaign.

Teerawat Boonyoo, coordinator of the UDD's fraud monitoring centres, said despite the disruption, he has encouraged the public to report any irregularities to the UDD so that they can file a complaint on their behalf.

The centres still operate unofficially, he said, with complaints sent in on a regular basis.

"We have had complaints regarding the volunteers tasked to provide knowledge on the constitution to the public, saying that they encouraged people to vote to adopt the draft charter so that elections can be held quickly," said Mr Teerawat. "I think it's misleading. It reminds me of the charter referendum in 2007, when the public was enticed into voting for the draft charter first, with any amendments, if needed, to be undertaken later."

However, Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda said last week the peacekeeping centres are not intended to silence differing opinions over the draft constitution.

He said the centres, operating at the provincial and district levels, are staffed by Interior Ministry officials and police and are responsible for preparing eligible voter lists for the EC and maintaining peace and order during the referendum.

Eugenie Merieau, a former researcher at the King Prajadhipok's Institute, said authoritarian constitution-making creates a win-win strategy for military leaders: first, it is used to buy time and to divert attention from both the long-term goal of the coup -- building the resilience of the military as a political actor -- and from the daily mismanagement of public affairs.

"The entire process of constitution-making, including the planned referendum, is a diversion from the real goal of the coup, which is to manage the royal succession," said Ms Merieau.

NOT A CRIME

Gathering at Thammasat University's Tha Prachan Campus last Sunday, crowds of pro-democracy supporters held up posters saying people have the right to conduct a referendum campaign and reject the draft charter.

"Campaigning is a right, it's not illegal!" chanted the crowd, estimated at around 700, according to the New Democracy Movement, which organised the event.

The gathering quickly turned into a political protest reminiscent of recent years, with occasional cheers and jeers from the audience, several of whom were wearing red shirts and danced and clapped to live music.

Participants paid tribute to the 13 students and activists who were arrested on June 23 outside an industrial complex in Samut Prakan's Bang Phli district for distributing flyers critical of the regime's draft charter.

Six of them sought bail, which was granted, while seven, all students, engaged in civil disobedience against their arrest by not requesting bail.

The MC on stage led the participants to chant, "Down with dictatorship, hail to democracy!" and repeated calls to release the seven students. The crowd later gathered in front of the statue of Thammasat University's founder Pridi Banomyong to release balloons demanding a fair referendum campaign and freedom to discuss the charter.

On Tuesday, the Military Court released all 13 of them, rejecting a police request to extend their detention.

Meanwhile, participants at the two-day seminar held by the CDC and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, several of whom were wearing yellow shirts, were told that the charter extended the freedom and rights of Thai citizens. CDC chairman Meechai Ruchupan also urged them, for the sake of the country, to help spread the "facts of the constitution".

"Our worst fears are those who deliberately provide false information to the public," said Mr Meechai.

Here's how you do it: 'Ror Dor' territorial defence students from Wat Nuannoradit School hand out leaflets at Victory Monument to encourage voters. PHOTO: Apichart Jinakul

Every rose has its thorn: Six opponents of the draft constitution walk free from Bangkok's Remand Prison after a military court found there was no reason to keep them detained. PHOTO: Pattanapong Hirunard

Sawatree Suksri.

Just say no: New Democracy Movement members hold up posters pushing for the right to campaign against the draft at a gathering on Sunday. PHOTO: Thanarak Khunton

Puangthong Pawakapan. Thanarak Khunton

Eugenie Merieau.

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