Thai Junta’s Charter Referendum in Doubt

Despite the Thai junta’s extraordinary efforts to quell opposition to its Aug. 7 referendum on a new constitution – more likely to be a referendum on the junta itself – it may not pass or the military might be forced to withdraw it, according to sources in Bangkok.

The document has been in the making for more than a year. And although the junta is seeking to leave nothing to chance, including commissioning a song extolling its virtues, passage is not a sure thing for a document that is universally regarded as only designed to perpetuate the military in power and which is generating underground opposition that could derail it.

There is reason for the military’s concern. Last September, the junta’s own hand-picked National Legislative Assembly turned down an earlier version of the document because of its sweeping powers for the military.

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, currently holding power through the National Council for Peace and Order, 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.

In a draconian effort to combat opposition, the Constitutional Drafting Committee is training 350,000 canvassers to campaign for passage in villages all across the country. Criticism has been outlawed and any “no” campaign is potentially punishable by 10 years in prison. Public debate has been banned. A handful of activists who have posted criticisms on Facebook have been arrested.

But “if the opposition groups are strong and active,” according to a university political scientist who preferred not to be quoted by name, “the chances are that the referendum will be suspended either by the junta or by some independent organizations.”

If that were to happen, or if the referendum were to lose outright, it would be a stinging blow to the NCPO. But with two years having passed since the May 22, 2014 coup, which ended months of political unrest on the streets, the junta’s welcome is growing increasingly thin, according to sources in Bangkok.

Not only is irritation rising over extensive use of unlimited powers written into the interim constitution pushed through by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief, the economy is stagnating, with GDP growth currently at 3.2 percent annualized. Capital flight – investment by Thais overseas – now amounts to a third of annual GDP, according to the Bank of Thailand, the country’s central bank.

“There is definitely a showdown in the making between the NCPO and the political parties and local activists who are completely fed up with these past two years of military misrule”, one long-time Bangkok-based expat observer said. “What’s incredibly absurd is the military has basically forced the rapidly growing ‘no’ campaign underground and in the process, made it harder for the NCPO to really determine how people are going to vote.

"Everyone believes that if it looks like the NCPO is going to lose the referendum that they will manufacture some incident or excuse to pull the plug at the last minute," he continued, "but how are they going to figure that out if people in the Northeast and the North – where the majority of Thai live – are forced to keep their mouths shut? Once again, wishful thinking rather than reality-based planning seems to be the preferred path for this group of increasingly clueless generals who are driving Thai politics and the economy into the ground.”

Against this backdrop, a kind of uneasy opposition is growing. On June 16, 17 leaders of the Pheu Thai party posted comments on Facebook, saying the draft document is unacceptable and undemocratic. Opposition is particularly centered in the northeast, where the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship has its base. The UDD, as it is known, is made up of backers of onetime Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup but who remains the strongest independent political force in the country from his exile base in Dubai.

At the same time, the UDD itself has emerged to open a “UDD Referendum Monitoring Center" designed to "create activities that will promote the Constitutional referendum on Aug. 7…in order to encourage citizens to freely vote for or against the constitution with reasons and discretion that is ow in accord with the democratic system.”

The Red Shirts, according to a press release about the center, intend to supply volunteers in every district and province to “monitor, deter” and file complaints on the use of local and government powers … which includes the use of force and intimidation to persuade people to vote in the way that the government or the people that wrote the constitution.”

The military, however, is watching closely and earlier this week closed a “UDD fraud center” in Lampang despite avowals by the UDD that the “fraud center” was only established to monitor the vote and not to promote opposition. It was supposed to be the first of many such centers established across the country.

Also, in May, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s 48-year-old sister and elected prime minister who was ousted by the coup, emerged in northern Thailand to greet supporters despite being on trial for corruption over a badly miscalculated rice subsidy scheme to keep the loyalty of Thailand’s millions of rice farmers and which cost the treasury billions. Yingluck cuddled babies, hugged constituents and posed with selfies across the region, according to local media.

There is probably little doubt on the part of the military that the trip was designed for one purpose, and that was to generate below-the-radar opposition to the referendum. She has been banned from politics for 20 years from a retroactive impeachment after she was ousted. Her tour of northern Phrae province had been billed for weeks through a campaign for what she called a drive to promote tourism and to meet and greet some of her Facebook fans, which number 5 million. Her reception was rapturous, with many continuing to call her “Nayok” or Prime Minister.

The destinations, however, ran directly through the heart of the Pheu Thai support base and political observers regarded the trip as a veiled challenge to the government over the referendum. She took a whirlwind tour of the northern Phrae province, as part of what she calls a campaign to promote tourism and meet some of her five million Facebook fans.

Publicity had been drummed up weeks before through a Facebook contest that invited her fans to nominate provincial attractions and cast their votes. The top destinations that were eventually picked were little-known places that ran right through the heart of the Pheu Thai party's support base.

"This is not a (public relations) strategy at all," she told foreign journalists invited to the Phrae trip. "When I ran the government, what we did was to convey to people the seriousness of our intent to take care and listen to all of them. Now that we are not in office anymore, this is the only channel we can use to connect with them."