Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha casts his ballot during the constitutional referendum vote in Bangkok, Thailand on August 7, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(New York) – The new constitution approved in Thailand’s August 7, 2016 referendum strengthens and prolongs military control of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. The vote followed a crackdown by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) against “Vote No” campaigners and others opposed to the proposed charter.

“The Thai junta’s campaign of repression against opponents of the proposed constitution ensured that the referendum wouldn’t be fair,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Instead of the long-promised return to democratic civilian rule, the new constitution facilitates unaccountable military power and a deepening dictatorship.”

Approximately 55 percent of eligible voters cast ballots on two referendum questions. The first was whether to accept the NCPO’s draft constitution. The second was whether during the first five years after the constitution takes effect to allow senators appointed by the junta to vote in parliamentary proceedings to choose a prime minister.

With 94 percent of the vote counted nationwide, the Election Commission of Thailand reported that about 15.6 million people (61 percent) supported the proposed constitution, and about 9.8 million (39 percent) opposed it. On the second question, 13.9 million people (58 percent) voted yes, and 10 million people (42 percent) voted no.

Key elements of the new constitution seek to entrench military control at the expense of political parties. As the junta has indicated, the new constitution contains provisions that will make it extremely difficult for a single party to win a majority in the 500-member lower house. This will allow the 250 junta-selected senators to play a critical role in parliament, including by choosing a prime minister, who will no longer be required to be an elected member of parliament.

In addition, the NCPO will reserve Senate seats for its key members, including the permanent secretary of defense; the supreme commander-in-chief; the commanders-in-chief of the army, navy, and air force; and the police commissioner-general. Under the constitution, both the new government and parliament will be required to adhere to the junta’s “20-year reform plan.”

The new constitution will entrench the abusive and unaccountable military rule that Thailand has endured since the May 2014 coup.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Since the May 2014 coup, the NCPO has severely repressed fundamental rights and freedoms. The 2014 interim constitution permitted the junta to carry out policies and actions without any effective oversight or accountability, including for human rights violations. The newly adopted constitution under section 279 provides that all announcements, orders, and actions of the NCPO will be considered constitutional and will continue to be in force.

“The new constitution ensures that the military junta will not be held accountable for the long list of rights violations committed since it took power in 2014,” Adams said.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised concerns that many internationally recognized elements for a fair referendum process were missing – particularly the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. The government sharply curtailed these rights through the Referendum Act, the Computer Crime Act, and article 116 of the penal code on sedition, as well as junta orders censoring the media and preventing public gatherings of more than five people. The government also failed to provide equal access to government media for opponents of the draft constitution, or ensure that the election commission acted in an impartial, independent, and accountable manner.

The National Council for Peace and Order, chaired by Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, ignored concerted calls from the United Nations and foreign governments for Thai authorities to respect people’s rights to freely express their views on the draft constitution. The junta arbitrarily interpreted criticisms and dissenting opinions about the proposed constitution as “false information” under the Referendum Act and a threat to national security.

The authorities arrested at least 120 politicians, activists, journalists, and supporters of political movements who had criticized the draft constitution, announced publicly that they would vote “no,” urged voters to reject the draft constitution, or sought to monitor the voting. Those found guilty of violating the Referendum Act could face up to 10 years in prison. These cases are expected to be heard by military tribunals, not civilian courts.

The junta’s intolerance of opposition to the draft constitution raises concerns of heightened repression prior to the next general election, now tentatively scheduled for late 2017. Instead of paving the way for a genuine democratic transition, the NCPO used the referendum process to foster a climate of fear and tighten its grip on governmental powers.

“The new constitution will entrench the abusive and unaccountable military rule that Thailand has endured since the May 2014 coup,” Adams said. “The UN and Thailand’s friends need to step up their calls for an end to human rights abuses and for genuine democratic reforms.”