UN condemns 'mounting' Thai junta rights restrictions

Some of the fifteen Thais suspected of being against the military junta government, are escorted by the military and police officers at the Crime Suppression Division, in Bangkok, Thailand on Aug 19.
Some of the fifteen Thais suspected of being against the military junta government, are escorted by the military and police officers at the Crime Suppression Division, in Bangkok, Thailand on Aug 19. PHOTO: EPA

BANGKOK (AFP) - The United Nations condemned "mounting" rights restrictions in junta-ruled Thailand on Friday (Aug 19), calling on the kingdom's generals to quickly return power following the passing of a new military-crafted constitution.

Thai voters cast ballots in favour of a new charter - the country's twentieth - in a referendum earlier this month that was hailed by the junta as an endorsement of their two years in power.

Some 61 percent of voters approved the document although independent campaigning and open debate was curbed ahead of the polls and turnout was subdued compared to general elections at 59 percent.

The UN said restrictions on freedom of expression and political assembly put in place since the 2014 coup "actually increased" ahead of the referendum.

"We are very concerned about the continued, mounting constraints on the democratic space in Thailand, and call for a prompt return to civilian rule," Ravina Shamdasani, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said.

The UN's statement echoed similar criticism by the United States and the European Union since the vote.

Former army chief turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha has promised to hold fresh elections at the end of 2017 but only if conditions are calm. His previous election deadlines have slipped.

Shamdasani said at least 115 people were arrested or charged for expressing views about the constitution ahead of the referendum.

She urged Thailand to "drop all charges" and release from jail those being punished for expressing an opinion.

Prayut has previously hit out at foreign criticism of his government, the most authoritarian Thai administration in decades.

In a terse message released through the prime minister's office after the vote he accused unnamed foreign elements of harbouring "malicious intent".

"All these interferences have inevitably led us to have contempt for the sentiments of those who claim to be 'friends' of Thailand," the statement read.

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 say they have restored stability and that their constitution will curb civilian political corruption.

Critics say it will further entrench the military's hold over future governments.