BANGKOK (AP) — Thais voted Sunday in a referendum on a new constitution that critics say is tailor-made for the military government to stay in control for several years and entrench a new, quasi-democratic system that gives vast powers to appointed officials.
The junta, which came to power in a May 2014 coup and ordered the constitution rewritten, says the new version will usher in a new era of clean politics and stable democracy in a country chronically short of both in recent years, sometimes sliding into violent internal political conflict.
Still, the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired army general, used its sweeping powers to ban political rallies, independent campaigns against the draft constitution and virtually no debates on it. Opponents say this was done to ensure that people would have little knowledge about the constitution’s provisions, even though 1 million copies are claimed to have been distributed to the public in a nation of 64 million people.
More than 100 people who tried to campaign against the referendum on social media have been thrown in jail, and open criticism has been made punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
“If people cannot speak their minds freely or take part in political activities without fear, how can they meaningfully engage in this referendum,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
At a polling booth in Bangkok where Prayuth voted, officials displayed an empty ballot box to reporters and sealed it before letting the first voter — a young woman — enter the booth. She first registered at a desk and signed a paper before casting her ballot.
“Come out (to vote) because today is important for the future of the country. This is your duty and this is part of democracy, of an internationally-recognized process,” Prayuth told reporters after voting.
People are being asked to check “yes” or “no” for the constitution and related provisions on the ballot paper. Final results are expected late Sunday.
The main criticism of the draft constitution includes at least five years of a transitional period and a 250-member appointed Senate that includes the commanders of the army and other security services. A deadlock in the 500-member elected lower house could trigger a selection of a prime minister who is not an elected member of parliament.
Also, emergency decrees enacted by the junta without any parliamentary consent remain valid. So-called independent bodies, stacked with conservative appointees, would hold “disproportionately broad and unchecked powers” over elected politicians, said the international human rights consortium FIDH and the Union for Civil Liberty in Thailand.
“If you say ‘yes’ to the constitution, it means you agree with the content of the constitution … what makes matters worse is you also give legitimacy to the coup, to the coup makers,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University in Japan.
Pavin, a Thai and a vocal critic of the junta, told The Associated Press that a victory in the referendum would give the junta the reason to tell the world “don’t you dare criticize us anymore because we have the legitimacy.”
Even if Thais vote “no,” the military will remain in control for the foreseeable future. Prayuth has promised to hold elections next year, without elaborating on how that would happen if voters reject the draft constitution.
Thailand has endured 13 successful military coups and 11 attempted takeovers since it replaced absolute with a constitutional monarchy in 1932. If passed, this would be Thailand’s 20th constitution.
Leaders of the latest coup say sometimes violent political conflict made the country ungovernable and that military rule was necessary to bring stability. It set up hand-picked committees to draft a charter that would enshrine its declared goal of reforming politics by eliminating corruption.
But others believe the draft constitution has a different aim: to weaken allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the central figure who has roiled Thai politics since 2006.
Thaksin’s political machine has easily won every national election since 2001, relying on the support of working-class and rural voters who benefited from his populist policies. Leading the other side is Thailand’s traditional ruling class and royalists unnerved by Thaksin’s political support, especially as it contemplates its future. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose righteous rule has anchored the kingdom since 1946, is 88 and ailing.
The army ousted Thaksin in a 2006 coup, after his “yellow shirt” critics took to the streets and accused him of abuse of power, corruption and disrespecting the king. He has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid prison for a corruption conviction that he says was politically motivated. The 2014 coup ousted his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was elected prime minister in 2011, but buffeted by protests sparked by legislation that would have pardoned Thaksin.
Those who brought Thaksin down now seek to weaken major political parties, which would ensure that real power stays in the hands of what is dubbed the permanent bureaucracy: the military, the courts and other unelected guardians of the conservative bloc.
Analysts say the new constitution would make it easy to disband parties, keep politicians in line, impeach politicians, and enforce a coalition government of weaker, smaller parties.
Chaturon Chaisang, who served in the Cabinets of both Thaksin and Yingluck, told the AP that his biggest objection is that “the draft charter will not allow Thai people to determine the future of this country.”
Associated Press journalists Grant Peck, Jerry Harmer, Tassanee Vejpongsa and Penny Wang in Bangkok and Ken Moritsugu in Tokyo contributed to this report.