Update 06/23/16: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, during a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha on June 20, 2016, raised concerns about stepped-up government repression ahead of Thailand’s constitutional referendum. That day the Thai junta charged 19 leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) with violating the junta’s ban on public gatherings of more than five people for opening a referendum monitoring center in Bangkok. If found guilty by the military court, the activists face up to six months in prison. On June 23 in Bang Pli district, Samut Prakarn province, soldiers arrested at least 13 activists who were handing out leaflets urging voters to reject the draft constitution. They were also charged with violating the ban on assemblies of more than five people.
(New York) – Thailand’s junta has forcibly blocked opposition efforts to monitor the nationwide referendum on a new constitution scheduled for August 7, 2016, Human Rights Watch said today. Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, who chairs the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), indicated that anyone monitoring support for the referendum would be subject to arrest and trial before a military court.
Thailand’s junta should immediately revoke its arbitrary restrictions on free expression, permit open discussion of the draft constitution, and ensure a fair referendum, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Thai junta is using threats and intimidation to bludgeon people into supporting a constitution that would prolong military rule,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The generals expect the Thai people to just shut up, obey their orders, and approve their draft constitution without any discussion or debate.”
The government reacted strongly to a plan by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts,” to set up referendum monitoring centers throughout the country. On June 18, General Prayut told the media: “I insist that those [referendum monitoring] centers can’t be opened. If they open, the authorities will arrest them [UDD members]. Gatherings of more than five persons are not allowed… Violation of the NCPO’s order will not be tolerated.”
The next day, police stormed the UDD headquarters in Bangkok and forced the cancellation of a ceremony to open the nationwide monitoring campaign, claiming that the event violated the junta’s ban on political gatherings. Elsewhere across Thailand, police and soldiers shut down the UDD’s referendum monitoring centers. Military officers summoned some local UDD leaders and ordered them not to engage in referendum monitoring activities or face charges before military courts.
International human rights law protects the rights of Thai people to express publicly their views on the draft constitution and to vote freely, Human Rights Watch said. But the conditions for the upcoming referendum hinder fair public discussion. For many Thais the only source of information about the draft constitution comes from the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Commission, the military, the Election Commission, and other government agencies – all of which have taken the position that the proposed constitution would benefit the Thai people. At the same time, the junta has refused to allow most seminars, conferences, and other public events that would encourage meaningful public discussion and debate about the draft constitution.
The NCPO has also actively suppressed the views of those who are openly critical of the draft constitution, Human Rights Watch said. On April 19, General Prayut said that opponents of the draft constitution “have no rights to say that they disagree… I don’t allow anyone to debate or hold a press conference about the draft constitution. Yet they still disobey my orders. They will be arrested and jailed for 10 years. No one will be exempted when the Referendum Act becomes effective. Not even the media.”
On April 18, the authorities arrested Watana Muangsook, a prominent Pheu Thai party member and former government minister, for posting commentary on his Facebook page that he would reject the draft constitution. The election commissioner of Thailand, Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, said on June 9 that more than 20 anti-junta activists performing in a music video urging voters to reject the draft constitution might be arrested. On June 18, General Prayut told the media that he had ordered the authorities to consider taking legal action against anyone who wears T-shirts or posts Facebook messages saying that they reject the constitution.
The junta’s intolerance for opposition to the draft constitution raises concerns of heightened repression prior to the referendum, Human Rights Watch said. Since the military coup in May 2014, the junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinion to be “false information” and a threat to national security.
Article 61 of the 2016 Referendum Act, which governs the referendum process, criminalizes “anyone who disseminates text, pictures or sounds that are inconsistent with the truth or in a violent, aggressive, rude, inciting or threatening manner aimed at preventing a voter from casting a ballot or vote in any direction or to not vote.” Violators face imprisonment up to 10 years, fines up to 200,000 baht (US$5,600), and loss of voting rights for 10 years. On June 6, the Office of the Ombudsmen filed a case with the Constitutional Court to rule on whether this article violates the right to freedom of expression endorsed in the 2014 interim constitution. A decision is expected by mid-July.
“The UN and Thailand’s friends around the world should publicly make clear to Bangkok that they will only recognize a referendum that meets international standards,” Adams said. “A free and fair referendum affecting Thailand’s future can’t be held when the rights of people to speak and exchange their views is suppressed.”