Countdown to Thai referendum begins with arrests and warnings

Countdown to Thai referendum begins with arrests and warnings -, July 27, 2007

[2015 note: Like many Thai newspaper articles from just a few years ago, this article is no longer online. Below is the complete text of the original article.]

THAILAND: Countdown to Referendum Begins with Arrests and Warnings

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Jul 27 2007 (IPS) - Dr. Weng Tojirakan was in a defiant mood the morning after he was detained by the police at the Criminal Court in the Thai capital. “This happened because of the tyranny in our country,” the 56-year-old medical doctor said in an interview Friday.

Weng is among nine leaders of an anti-coup group who were charged by the authorities following a clash between police and protesters Sunday night in Bangkok. The others who were taken into custody include a former supreme court judge, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission and a former spokesman of deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government.

“We regard our arrest as another step in our struggle to restore democracy in Thailand,” added Weng, who was present outside the home of a top advisor to the country’s revered monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, where the confrontation took place. Over 100 people were injured when the police tried to stop nearly 5,000 protesters from demonstrating. The latter responded with stones.

This first incident of violence following last September’s coup comes just as the national junta and its military-appointed government launch a campaign for Thailand’s first-ever referendum, on Aug. 19. The registered voters are being urged by the generals to endorse the country’s 18th constitution in the plebiscite.

The week ahead will see the government raising the tempo of the referendum campaign through the media and the mail. Postal carriers across the country are expected to deliver a copy of the new constitution to each of the country’s registered voters. Households will have only three weeks to digest the 186 pages that contain the 309 articles of the new charter.

But there is more at stake, given the criticism levelled against military rulers, who came to power after driving from office the twice-elected Thaksin in the Sep. 19, 2006 putsch. For the Council for National Security (CNS), as the junta calls itself, the referendum is the first test of its legitimacy at the ballot.

“The CNS is hoping to gain legitimacy for the coup and the period since through the referendum,” says Naruemon Thabchumpon, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “To win it, the ministry of the interior has already organised a network in the provinces, where the majority of voters are.”

A victory for the CNS may help to reduce the political tension, she told IPS, but added that such a truce between opposition groups and the generals may not last for long. “The political divisions in Thailand have grown wider and deeper since the coup.”

Bridging the country’s political divides, in fact, was one reason the military launched the coup, Thailand’s 18th since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The generals accused the Thaksin administration of pursuing politically divisive policies, in addition to charges that he had undermined the country’s democracy through corruption and nepotism.

The military rulers offered themselves as a better alternative – even promising a free and fair political culture – in helping to guide the country back to democracy.

But on Wednesday, the military-appointed parliament passed a law that raises questions about such assurances as the referendum looms. Any attempt to obstruct the referendum has been made a crime, including a 10-year jail sentence. Violations range from misleading the public about the plebiscite to damaging ballot papers.

These measures come on top of nearly half of Thailand’s 76 provinces still being under martial law since the coup and the government using the military and police to prevent anti-coup groups from the villages heading to Bangkok to protest. Men from the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC), a powerful arm of the military, are monitoring activity in the poorer neighbourhoods, says a former senator.

The junta’s restrictions on the country’s rural population and the poor stem from fear that ousted premier Thaksin, currently living in exile, will restore lines of contact with this largest constituency. The poor and the rural voters formed the bedrock of Thaksin’s supporters, enabling his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai party) to win thumping mandates at the 2001 and 2005 general elections.

Little wonder why, to some, there is hardly a difference between the way the junta is trying to control the political environment and the way Thaksin’s administration did before. “The pillars on which the coup was legitimised have been knocked down one by one,” David Streckfuss, a U.S. academic specialising in Thai political culture, told IPS. “What we have are two illegitimate regimes fighting against each other.”

Thailand is facing a “new political culture,” adds Somchai Homlaor, a human rights lawyer. “The current environment is not free for the pro-Thaksin people. More and more people are getting suspicious the junta wants to retain its power.”

The leaders of the anti-coup groups, some of who have already pasted “Vote No” signs down Bangkok’s streets, are more blunt. It is particularly so following the weekend’s clashes that come after regular anti-coup protests in a field close to the historic part of the city.

“This will be a sham referendum because the military has major institutions under its control – the police, the soldiers and the courts,” says Dr. Sant Hatthirat, a leader of the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).

“Public anger will only rise,” Sant, a cardiologist by training, told IPS. “The military’s intimidation of the people is a form of vote threatening.”
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