Thai voters say ‘yes’ to the military-written constitution

Under tight-controlled referendum, the military-backed government in Thailand won overwhelming majority in approving the constitution draft. Critics say the ‘yes’ vote is not good for democracy.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A ballot box is seen during Thailand Election Commission's event to promote voting at the August 7 referendum on a new constitution, in Bangkok, Thailand, August 4, 2016.

Voters gave approval to the military-backed constitution with a clear-cut majority in the Thailand referendum amid serious concerns of the political parties, polls results show on Sunday.

The newly approved constitution is said to pave the way for next year general elections, but with military key role in the years to come.

Analysts see the referendum to further tighten the grip of the military on the country’s future politics and also justify the military rule since 2014.

Under the newly approved draft-constitution, the transition period of the government will be 5 years, the prime minister will not be an elected member of the lower house, the 250-member Senate or upper house will be appointed, not elected, the military does not need any parliament’s approval to impose emergency, and five military commanders will also be members of the Senate.

Election Commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn told reporters that 62 percent of the voters approved, while 38 percent rejected the Junta-backed draft constitution, the 20th constitution since a complete end to the monarchy in 1932.

With 94 percent of the vote counted, early results from the Election Commission showed 61.4 percent of the country had voted for the charter, while 37.9 percent rejected it. Full results are due on Wednesday.

"The gap is wide enough not to change the result," Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, chairman of the commission, told reporters after 90 percent of the vote count had been completed.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha leaves after casting his vote in a referendum on a new constitution at a polling station in Bangkok, Thailand, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016.

Some 50 million voters were registered for Sunday's referendum, but only about 55 percent of them voted, Somchai said.

The vote comes amidst concern about the health of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 88. The military has for decades invoked its duty as defender of the deeply revered monarch to justify its interventions in politics.

The junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), banned debate about the constitution and campaigning ahead of the vote.

The authorities have detained and charged dozens of people who have spoken against it, including politicians and student activists.

Nine activists who posted comments critical of Thailand's ruling junta and a military-backed draft constitution on Facebook have been jailed, police said on Saturday, the latest opponents of the government penalised for airing dissent.

The junta says the constitution is designed to heal more than a decade of divisive politics in Thailand that has dented growth and left scores dead in civil unrest.

At the headquarters of the anti-government United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) group, some people wept as the result became clear. Jatuporn Prompan, the UDD chairman, said the referendum should not have been held under such conditions.

"What will we do next? Tell Prayuth that although it seems he is winning, this is not a victory he can be proud of because his opponents have not been able to fight at their best due to threats and harassment," he said.

The Sunday national referendum was the first test case for the Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired army general who has severely curtailed dissent since coming to power in a 2014 coup.

But his rule has also brought a measure of stability and ended the frequent street violence and divisive politics that had frayed Thailand's social fabric for years.

Although no irregularities were reported in the voting process, critics are likely to point out that the "no" camp was denied the opportunity to present its case.

The junta imposed severe restrictions in the run-up to the referendum, banning political rallies, independent campaigns and open discussion about the draft constitution. Criticism of the draft was made punishable by 10 years in jail. Critics say the restrictions ensured that most people were unaware of the pitfalls of the charter, and were probably anxious to get the long-drawn process over with so that they could move on.

"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," Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University in Japan, said Friday.

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."

Thailand has endured 13 successful military coups and 11 attempted takeovers since it replaced an absolute monarchy with a constitutional one in 1932. This would be Thailand's 20th constitution.

But others believe the new constitution has a different aim: to weaken allies of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the central figure in the roiling of Thai politics.

A protester, center, throws a water bottle at Thai soldiers during an anti-coup demonstration at the Victory Monument in Bangkok, Thailand. File photo

Thaksin's political machine has easily won every national election since 2001, mainly due to 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 — known as the "yellow shirts" — unnerved by Thaksin's 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 "yellow shirt" protesters 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.

TRTWorld and agencies