Thai opposition subdued ahead of charter vote

Protesters forced to attend 'attitude adjustment sessions'

KHON KAEN (Thailand) • In north- east Thailand, once a hotbed of opposition to Thailand's junta, troops patrol university campuses in Humvees and hold "attitude adjustment sessions" at military camps for those who do not toe the line.

Two years after a military coup, the opposition is struggling to mount a campaign against an Aug 7 referendum on a junta-backed draft Constitution, its first test of popularity since the May 2014 coup.

The junta has imposed restrictions on even debating the draft Constitution.

"The soldiers have successfully built fear here," said Mr Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a law student at Khon Kaen University in the north- east and a member of an anti-coup group, Dao Din. "Referendum or no referendum, they've won."

He and 13 others were held for about two weeks last year after demonstrating against the government. He said the group now limits activities to composing anti-junta songs.

CLIMATE OF FEAR

The soldiers have successfully built fear here. Referendum or no referendum, they've won.

LAW STUDENT JATUPAT BOONPATTARARAKSA, on restrictions imposed by the junta. He is a member of Dao Din, an anti-coup group.



FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

People can discuss so long as they do so in an inoffensive manner.

JUNTA SPOKESMAN WINTHAI SUVAREE, denying claims of a crackdown on free expression.

The military has overseen the drafting of a Constitution to replace one it discarded after seizing power.

Critics, including major political parties, say it will enshrine the military's influence and is unlikely to end political strife. The charter would have an appointed Upper House Senate, with seats reserved for the military and police.

The junta said this clause is necessary to oversee a five-year "transitional period" before full civilian rule is restored.

The military has kept Isaan in the north-east under control since seizing power. Thailand's largest region is a stronghold of "red shirt" supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who remains in exile. His sister Yingluck was removed from office in May 2014.

Critics say the crackdown on free expression sows doubts about the military's intention to hold a free vote on the August referendum followed by national elections next year. Junta spokesman Winthai Suvaree insisted: "People can discuss so long as they do so in an inoffensive manner."

The red flags which fluttered throughout Isaan were nowhere to be seen on a recent drive through the region. Soldiers have removed them and villagers took down others to avoid getting a summons. Those summoned to "attitude adjustment sessions" are usually released after they sign papers promising not to repeat their mistakes.

Last month, the junta said it would organise "re-education camps" for repeat offenders, including those who protest publicly. It is preparing to send military cadets to towns and villages to discuss the referendum. The government denies that this breaks campaigning rules.

Farmer and red-shirt supporter Achana Chiutasaen, 51, compared the silence of the opposition to the drought, which must end sooner or later. He said: "We are seeds underground now waiting for the rain, and when it comes, the seeds will grow."

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'Thai opposition subdued ahead of charter vote'. Print Edition | Subscribe