Time to shelve differences, junta chief tells Thais

BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's junta chief urged people in a speech on Wednesday (Aug 10) to shelve their differences after voters approved a new military-crafted constitution, but made no promise to ease restrictions on civil liberties.

Sunday's vote in support of the charter was the first test of public opinion since the 2014 coup, although campaigning and debate was stifled ahead of the polls.

The military has promised to hold fresh elections at the end of 2017. The European Union and the United States have urged it to scrap a ban on political gatherings, to allow for free debate ahead of the polls.

In a speech broadcast on all TV channels, former army chief turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha pushed a message of reconciliation.

"I would like us to leave our differences, those feelings of like and dislike, acceptance or disagreement in the ballot boxes and walk forward," he said.

"The referendum may be over but your mission and our mission is not over yet," he added.

Thailand has been bitterly divided ever since the military launched a coup in 2006 that toppled Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister.

Years of competing protests and instability followed, resulting eventually in the 2014 coup that ousted the government of Thaksin's sister Yingluck.

The Shinawatra clan have won all general elections since 2001 by promising greater wealth and opportunity to the nation's poor, especially in the long neglected north and northeast.

But his parties were loathed by a Bangkok elite and by southern voters - backed by the military establishment - who accused him of corruption.

The military has pushed its charter as a way to detoxify Thaksin's style of politics. Some 61 percent of voters approved the document in the referendum with a 59 per cent turnout, according to updated figures from election authorities.

The junta was criticised by allies and the United Nations for severe curbs on independent campaigning and debate ahead of the vote.

During Wednesday's speech, Prayut hit back at such criticism.

"People are not limited in their freedom as long as they do not violate laws or create any trouble," he said, adding that criticism of the government happened "on a regular basis".

Prayut's administration has been one of the most authoritarian Thai governments in decades.

Political gatherings are banned and scores of critics have been jailed or face prosecution under a myriad of laws including sedition and royal defamation.

The military portrays itself as the ultimate protector of the monarchy. In his speech Prayut said his government would continue to pursue royal defamation cases.

Anxiety over the ill health of 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej has compounded Thailand's political crisis as competing factions jostle for power before the succession.