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A New Constitution? Yes or No?

A New Constitution? Yes or No?

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's Constitutional Court has upheld a law that metes out 10 years imprisonment to anyone who voices an opinion about the junta's favored draft constitution, or campaigns for or against it before a scheduled nationwide August 7 referendum.

"If the draft constitution does not pass, a new one has to be written," coup-installed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on June 28, one day before the court ruling.

The court's decision and Mr. Prayuth's orchestration of a new constitution contrast sharply with dissidents, politicians, local media, Thai and international human rights groups and others who have asked that the draft and referendum be open to public debate, criticism and changes.

Voters decide on the junta's draft constitution on August 7 by casting a "yes" or "no" vote.

Some see the referendum as a popularity test of the junta as it enters a third year in power.

Before retiring as army chief and general, Mr. Prayuth led Thailand's U.S.-trained military in a bloodless May 2014 coup against an elected civilian government.

Mr. Prayuth said the referendum will be followed by national elections in 2017 for Parliament's 500-seat House of Representatives, plus the junta's appointment of a 250-member Senate.

The Senate would include six seats for the head of the army, navy, air force and national police, plus the military's supreme commander and defense permanent secretary.

The Constitutional Court's ruling was on a case filed by a pro-democracy group, Internet Dialogue on Law Reform -- known as iLaw -- along with academics and others.

They questioned the legitimacy of the Draft Referendum Act's Section 61 which warns: "Anyone who publishes text, images or sound, through either newspaper, radio, television, electronic media or other channels, that is either untruthful, harsh, offensive, rude, inciting or threatening, with the intention that voters will either not exercise their right to vote, or vote in a certain way, or not vote, will be considered as a person creating confusion so that the vote will not proceed properly.”

The Constitutional Court said Section 61 was legal under Mr.

Prayuth's interim constitution which he unveiled shortly after leading the May 2014 coup.

"It does not pose any problem pertaining to its legality under the 2014 interim constitution," the court said on June 29.

"People do not dare to express their opinions on the draft charter, as they are afraid of being prosecuted," said iLaw's Director Jon Ungpakorn before the court's decision.

"Even wearing a T-shirt with messages in favor of, or against, the draft could lead to 10 years imprisonment," Mr. Jon said.

"These laws do not impinge on general freedom of expression -- which we believe to be a fundamental element of a democratic society -- as long as such expression does not undermine public order and social harmony," the Foreign Ministry said before the ruling.

Some Thais agree that Mr. Prayuth's control over the process of creating a new constitution will guide this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation to peace and prosperity.

"Many people are sick and tired of political games and politicians in general, and many are also glad that the military took power, and happy with the peace and order today," said businessman Chira Sirisambhand, 59, in an interview.

Mr. Chira's relatives include generals and other military officers, active or retired.

His ancestors served in senior military positions dating back to a 17th century Buddhist kingdom in Ayutthaya -- in today's central Thailand.

"I totally agree with" the junta's limits on publicly debating the draft or campaigning for or against it, Mr. Chira said.

"Why? Because the groups that are against the referendum can and will just say anything against it, and their supporters will just blindly support it.

"A clash of minds can just lead to another confrontation, physically or ideologically. We don't need this," Mr. Chira said.

Mr. Prayuth said if the referendum fails, he would not copy British Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to resign after the Brexit vote.

"Do you want me to resign? I will not resign," Mr. Prayuth told reporters on June 27 after some Thai politicians suggested he follow Mr. Cameron's example.

"He [Cameron] did not come to power in the same way I did. His country did not have the problems ours does," Mr. Prayuth said.

On June 20, Mr. Prayuth and his Red Shirt opponents contacted the U.N. about their worsening confrontation concerning the draft.

After Mr. Prayuth's 30-minute telephone call to U.N.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Ban's spokesperson said: "Referring to reports about restrictions on the freedoms of expression, opinion and assembly ahead of the August 7 referendum on the draft constitution, the [U.N.] secretary-general stressed that an open and inclusive debate would be essential to ensuring the legitimacy of the constitution and achieving national unity.”

"I explained to him [Mr. Ban] that we have such freedom," Mr.

Prayuth said in a Bangkok Post interview on June 20.

"As for the draft charter, people throughout the country have been given a chance to voice their opinions," Mr. Prayuth said.

The junta is allowing some regime-monitored discussions among selected people, but unhampered debate or public demonstrations for or against the draft have been stopped by authorities.

Police on June 19 also stopped pro-election Red Shirts from assigning civilians nationwide to staff self-styled "anti-fraud" centers to monitor the referendum.

"Authorities informed them [the Red Shirts] that it is against the law to set up the centers," said National Security Council Secretary-General, Thawip Netniyom.

"There is a political motive behind the setting up of the centers.

We are afraid that people may fall victim to distorted information," said junta spokesman Col. Piyapong Klinpan.

The Reds then turned to the U.N. for help.

"We would like the United Nations to come in and monitor" the referendum, Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan told reporters after he and other co-leaders of the popular group petitioned the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights at its regional Bangkok headquarters on June 20.

Red Shirts, officially known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, reportedly gave the U.N. a petition focusing on Thailand's lack of free speech to discuss the referendum.

Some people worry the constitutional crisis may become a protracted legal squabble which could delay elections.

The junta said elections would be allowed in 2015, and then said 2016, but again postponed them to 2017.

"The problem is that the draft constitution is not a liberal one.

It was designed to entrust the power into the hands of the bureaucracy, civilian and military," said Kasit Piromya, 72, in an interview on June 5.

Mr. Kasit is a member of a 200-seat National Reform Steering Assembly appointed by Mr. Prayuth in October to suggest how to fix Thailand.

Mr. Kasit was a senior politician in the military-friendly Democrat Party.

Even though he works with the junta's assembly, he now appears concerned that the constitution will cripple politicians.

"It is a draw-back for democratic advancement," said Mr. Kasit who was also a foreign minister.

"Peace and stability cannot occur only under draconian laws and military rule," he said.

The next constitution will be Thailand's 20th since 1932 because a dozen military coups abolished previous charters, while others were created after political feuds.

Similar to past constitutions, the draft does not outlaw coups.

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was toppled by Mr. Prayuth's 2014 coup, staged a soft-spoken charm campaign during May in Thailand's north and northeast, boosting her supporters' morale while mindful of the junta's censorship laws.

Ms. Yingluck, who holds a master's degree in politics and business from Kentucky State University, currently faces criminal charges of "negligence" allegedly committed during her administration.

Ms. Yingluck, elected in 2011, is widely perceived as politically subservient to her authoritarian elder brother former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who fell in a 2006 military coup.

Mr. Thaksin is an international fugitive dodging a two-year prison sentence for a corruption conviction.

In 2010, the siblings' Red Shirt supporters staged a Bangkok insurrection demanding immediate elections.

More than 90 people died during the nine-week confrontation with the military, including some troops but mostly Red civilians.

The army used armored personnel carriers to finally crush the Reds' bamboo-and-barbed wire barricades.

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest Virtual Reality novel titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo," is an immersive 3-dimensional experience with Oculus technology.

His websites are

twitter @nimists

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