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Thailand votes on controversial new constitution ordered by junta

Published 07/08/2016

A Thai official prepares a booth for voting in a referendum on a new constitution, at a polling station in Bangkok (AP)
A Thai official prepares a booth for voting in a referendum on a new constitution, at a polling station in Bangkok (AP)

Thais began voting in a referendum on a new constitution that critics say is designed to allow the military government to stay in control.

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.

But t he government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a retired army general, used its sweeping powers to ban political rallies and independent campaigns against the draft constitution and allowed virtually no debates on it.

Opponents say this was done to ensure that people would have little knowledge about the constitution's provisions.

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.

The main criticisms of the draft constitution include 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.

Even if Thais vote "no" the military will remain in control for the foreseeable future. Mr Prayuth has promised to hold elections next year, without elaborating on how that would happen if voters reject the draft constitution.

He said on Friday: "I have no intention of holding on to power. I always said that we will have an election in 2017. We want the country to move forward and figure out ways to have stability for at least five years.

"If I was a real dictator, I would have not allowed the referendum or promised to hold elections."

"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-recognised process," Mr Prayuth told reporters after voting in Bangkok.

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 in Thai politics since 2006.

His 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 his political support, especially as it contemplates its future.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose rule has anchored the kingdom since 1946, is 88 and ailing.

The army ousted Mr 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 hit by protests sparked by legislation that would have pardoned Mr Thaksin.

"Today is a very important day for Thailand because this is the way of democracy, so make sure people understand the content and then share your opinion," she told reporters after casting her vote, which she had previously said would be against the draft.

AP

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