Space narrows for naysayers in Thai referendum

People take a look at Thailand Election Commission's voting machines during an event to kick off the distribution of five million copies of a controversial military-written draft constitution, ahead of the referendum in Bangkok, Thailand
People take a look at Thailand Election Commission's voting machines during an event to kick off the distribution of five million copies of a controversial military-written draft constitution, ahead of the referendum in Bangkok, ThailandPHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Thai election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn could hardly contain his pride when he spoke to foreign correspondents recently about the many precedents his agency had set in the run-up to the national referendum on Aug 7.

For the first time, he said, Thai citizens who are living outside their home province could register online to vote elsewhere. For the first time, clusters of elderly people or people living with disabilities can make a request to cast their ballot in a mobile voting station. And for the first time, voters would be able to use a GPS-enabled phone application that will guide them to the nearest voting station.

"As far as I know, we are the first country in the world to have this function," he said at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Bangkok.

With just three weeks to go before the national plebiscite on a draft charter drawn up under the guardianship of Thailand's two-year-old junta, no effort has been spared to make the event a success.

Voting time has been extended by one hour to 4pm. Thais who are at least 18 years old on referendum day - instead of Jan 1 this year - can cast their vote on whether to accept what could be Thailand's 20th Constitution since 1932.

Depending on how you look at it, this is a draft charter that either extends elite and military power over a future elected government, or guarantees a steadying hand in a Kingdom frequently rocked by political turmoil and military takeovers.

But the preparation for this referendum is a striking reminder of what is possible when all the major cogs in Thailand's state machinery decide to work. It makes the invalidated election of Feb 2, 2014, feel like a distant memory.

Then, security forces appeared either unable or unwilling to intervene as protesters blocked voting to prevent the re-election of then caretaker prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Some polling stations never even opened, creating a political stalemate that ended in a coup in May that year.

Next month's plebiscite will be protected by a Referendum Act that threatens those who try to influence voting, as well as those who give rude, provocative or misleading information, with up to 10 years in jail. Some local officials tasked by the state to disseminate information about the draft charter have been so intimidated that they are trying to say as little as possible about it.

Law enforcement action has largely been directed at those criticising the charter. This means while the state broadcasting regulators have attempted to suspend the operations of Peace TV, a satellite television channel run by the "red shirt" allies of the former Puea Thai party government, former anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has not been censured for his Facebook videos extolling the virtues of the draft.

"This is the first time that the national strategy - which is the long-term plan and framework for any country's development - is addressed in the constitution," he said in his latest video posted on Monday (July 18).

Meanwhile, activists campaigning against the draft constitution were detained over their publicity material, alongside a reporter from online news magazine Prachatai who was covering their work. Prachatai's office was later searched.

The junta has also issued a special order granting the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission legal immunity for suspending or revoking the licences of radio or TV stations that air news inciting division, among other infringements.

With political gatherings banned, the physical canvassing typical during elections is out of bounds.

"The voice against the charter has no voice in the public space at all," Dr Sirote Klampaiboon, a political commentator and independent academic told s The Straits Times. Critical voices have largely been muscled out of mainstream Thai media.

The question, though, is whether people have already made up their minds, regardless of what they have been allowed to hear - or not hear.

tanhy@sph.com.sg