JAKARTA — Parliamentarians from across Southeast Asia today deplored the undemocratic process leading up to this Sunday’s referendum on a new constitution in Thailand, raising concerns over harassment, arrests, and intimidation of those seeking to campaign against the draft charter.
“This is not a referendum in any genuine sense of the word. This is not a democratic process. It’s a forced vote at the barrel of a gun following a campaign in which the authorities have sought to actively thwart informed debate,” said Charles Santiago, member of the Malaysian Parliament and Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
The constitution up for a vote on Sunday was penned by a military-appointed drafting committee and has been roundly criticized by human rights groups, including APHR, as well as Thai academics and politicians from across the political spectrum. Their criticism has highlighted anti-democratic clauses in the charter that would entrench military control over politics, undermine the power of elected representatives, and strip communities of previously enshrined rights to protect their own environment.
“As parliamentarians who believe in democracy and the rule of law, we cannot support this constitution, or Sunday’s vote on it. We wish to send a message of solidarity with the Thai people and all those striving to regain basic rights and freedoms in the country,” Santiago said.
APHR sought to highlight the increasingly arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, which have been used to arrest activists, politicians, and journalists now facing charges for their criticism of the charter. Authorities have also ordered the cancelation of public events to discuss the constitution and sought to intimidate participants.
The act governing the rules for the referendum outlaws the distribution of “aggressive” information intended to influence voters, a clause which parliamentarians previously identified as overly broad and in violation of international standards.
“This is no atmosphere in which to conduct a vote. Free and open debate is critical to ensuring that the public can make an informed decision. Without it, there seems little rationale for holding this referendum other than an attempt by an unelected junta to manipulate the democratic process in order to claim some kind of legitimacy,” Santiago concluded.
APHR also noted the junta’s efforts to restrict election monitoring, including by arresting at least 38 people for their involvement in attempts to set up centers across the country devoted to monitoring electoral fraud. These moves further undermine the already tenuous legitimacy of the vote, parliamentarians argued.
Thailand’s military leaders have ignored requests from foreign governments and regional and international actors, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to revoke the arbitrary restrictions imposed on free expression and assembly in order to allow for a more legitimate debate ahead of the referendum.
“The junta has failed to heed any requests for a fair and open debate and stubbornly ignored basic international standards for conducting this kind of referendum,” said Walden Bello, former Congressman from the Philippines and APHR Board member.
The constitution, if adopted, would be Thailand’s 20th since absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. Junta leaders, including Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha, have vowed to stay in power if the draft charter is rejected.
“It seems that the Thai people are damned if they do and damned if they don’t approve this constitution. General Prayuth and his council of elders clearly have no intention of willingly ceding their grip on power, and so they have provided the Thai people not with a clear choice, but a dangerous catch-22,” Bello said.