BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's king on Friday (April 22) approved a law providing a 10-year jail sentence for campaigning ahead of an August referendum on a new constitution written by the ruling military.
The law, also signed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, comes amid snowballing criticism of the proposed charter, which the junta says is the antidote to Thailand's caustic political divide.
Politicians from across the aisle have blasted the charter as undemocratic and aimed at entrenching military power at the expense of elected lawmakers.
The country will vote in an Aug 7 referendum but the law further empowers the military to block any protests or public seminars on the charter.
The broadly-worded new legislation criminalises "deceiving, forcing or influencing a voter to not cast his vote or vote in any direction".
All laws must be formally approved by the 88-year-old king, who is a constitutional monarch.
The law was released hours after the UN's human rights commissioner spoke out against the military's curbs on dissent.
The past week has seen several activists and a high-profile ex-politician arrested for vocal opposition to the charter - which will be Thailand's 20th in less than a century if it passes.
"I urge the government to actively encourage, rather than discourage, dialogue and engagement on the draft constitution," the UN's Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said.
"Extending the military's powers is not the answer to rebuilding Thailand's political landscape," he added.
The junta has maintained a ban on political activities and public gatherings since its power grab two years ago.
Under the proposed charter, a junta-appointed senate with seats reserved for military commanders would check the powers of elected lawmakers for a five-year transitional period.
Thailand has been torn apart by coups and rounds of often-deadly mass protests since billionaire ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by the military in 2006.
Shinawatra supporters say the charter is an effort to cripple the powerful Shinawatra family, whose political bloc has won every national election in the past decade but is hated by a military-allied elite.