Thailand Awaits a Rigged Referendum

On Aug. 7, Thailand’s 40 million-odd voters are scheduled to go to the polls to vote on a draft constitution that the junta has attempted to rig so thoroughly that it thinks it can’t lose, although it might anyway.

The goal of the draft constitution – the country’s 19th since the military staged its first coup in 1932 – is plainly designed to perpetuate the junta in power indefinitely, and to eliminate even the slightest chance that Thaksin Shinawatra, the communications billionaire who has dominated Thai politics not only from 2001 to 2006, when he was driven from power in a military coup, but by remote control from Dubai, where he has been in exile for 10 years.

Nobody knows who will win, because the junta has not only banned all criticism of the document but has outlawed opinion polls and poll-watchers. It has commissioned hundreds of thousands of government-backed canvassers to go to villages across the country to campaign for passage. Anyone mounting a “no” campaign is liable to a potential 10 years in prison.

A move by the opposition United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) to open "referendum monitoring centers” was met with a threat of arrest. Gatherings of more than five persons to discuss the issue have been banned. Nonetheless, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the head of the Democrat Party, which opposed Thaksin and whose leaders engineered the political chaos that brought about the 2014 coup that ended democratic government, has publicly said he is opposed to the charter, as have leading members of Pheu Thai, the ousted surrogate party headed by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck.

The junta claims rather ingenuously that the new charter would enhance the ability of the next government to fight against corruption while ensuring that its current reform program would be preserved. That has become an embarrassment because several top generals have been implicated a wide range of corrupt acts themselves, including inflating the costs of a park in Hua Hin, the site of the kings’s summer palace, to honor the Chakri dynasty kings. Several are considered to be abnormally wealthy.

“This referendum has all the markings of a fixed game, with a draft constitution that had no public input and a nasty Referendum Act law that criminalizes any sort of effort to advocate for a "no" vote,” said a spokesman for a Bangkok- based NGO who asked not to be named for fear of being arrested. “By using intimidation and arrests, the junta has tried to clear the field for its "yes" vote propaganda in a way that recalls the way that Burma's military dictators jammed their rights abusing 2008 constitution through.”

So far, at least 120 civil society critics have been arrested and are now facing trial in military courts for speaking out against the junta’s orders. It has been boycotted by international voting observers who determined that no amount of international engagement was possible to make the vote either free or fair.

Even at that, there is a good chance that the vote may fail because it is regarded as a blatant attempt to perpetuate the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta has named itself, in power. If it does fail, the embarrassment to the junta and its leader, Prayuth Chan-ocha, would be overwhelming, significantly reducing the government’s credibility.

Nonetheless, as a Thai financial executive told Asia Sentinel, “it doesn’t matter if it passes or fails. The military is going to stay until the ‘transition.’”

That "transition" is the passage from the scene of the ailing King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the 88-year-old who has ruled the country since 1946, making him the world’s longest-serving monarch. He is due to be succeeded by his son, the 62-year-old Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who is regarded with scorn by much of the population despite massive efforts to prop up him and the rest of the royal family with the draconian lèse-majesté law. The law was most recently used against Patnaree Chankij, the 40-year-old mother of a student activist, who responded to a message critical of the monarchy by answering with the word ja, or "yes" or “I see" in Thai.

In the past, the passage of Thai monarchs has too often been met with bloodbaths. Bhumibol has been hospitalized for years and is occasionally trundled out, looking moribund, so the crowds can see him. The prince has hardly helped his case by roaming Munich, where he spends most of his time, wearing a bizarre tank top that barely covered massive gangland-style tattoos that may have been stickers.

The photos traveled all over Thailand on the internet. With the royal image vital, Vajiralongkorn is doing little to uphold it, especially among his opponents in the royal court.

The proposed charter creates a 250-member Senate appointed by the military. A supplemental question asks voters if they agree to allow the Senate to play an equal role to the democratically elected lower House in voting for the appointment of the prime minister. Such arrangements, combined with other provisions on elections in the constitution that many observers believe will result in many smaller parties contesting power in the lower house, would make the appointed Senate incredibly powerful. It would also give the military the de facto power to steer the country as it pushes forward on a larger, 20-year military development program that is still being put together.

“Expect Gen. Prayuth to crow long and hard if the 'yes' vote wins this blatantly un-free exercise, and no doubt we'll hear a non-ending stream of how he's saved Thailand again and other such rubbish like the self-serving exceptionalism that the country is special, and the sort of international rights and standards that apply everywhere else in the world can't possibly apply to Thailand,” the NGO spokesman said. “This is Southeast Asia dictators’ playbook 101, and Prayuth and his merry band of generals are playing their roles according to the script that they wrote to keep themselves in power indefinitely."

If it doesn’t pass, the junta is likely to attempt to write yet another constitution. In any case, as the financial executive said, the military isn’t going anywhere until the question over the royal succession is settled once the king has died. A period of mourning probably lasting months will finish off any politicking for a considerable period.