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Thais vote on junta-written constitution, will be country's 20th if passed

The Thai military has successfully seized power 12 times since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932; this latest constitution will be the kingdom's 20th, if passed. Photograph: (AFP)

AFP Bangkok Thailand Aug 07, 2016, 01.28 AM (IST)
Thailand will vote on a junta-crafted constitution today in a referendum where independent campaigning and open debate has been banned, as opponents warn the document will perpetuate military power.

The referendum is the first time Thais have headed to the polls since the generals toppled a democratically-elected government in 2014.

The kingdom has been beset by a decade of political turmoil, denting growth and taking the shine off a nation that was once hailed for its democratic progress.

The military says their new constitution will curb endemic political corruption and bring stability after the dizzying merry-go-round of recent years.

But critics say it aims to neuter civilian politicians and reinforce the royalist elite's hold over democracy.

Jaturong Boonyarattanasoontorn, from the Union for Civil Liberty, described the referendum as a "win-win" for the military.

"If the draft constitution is accepted, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) will use it to legitimise its influence over Thai politics," he said, using the official acronym for the junta.

"If it's rejected, the junta will have an excuse to continue its absolute rule."

Thailand has long had a turbulent political scene. The military has successfully seized power 12 times since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 and this constitution will be the kingdom's twentieth if passed.

But the latest political crisis - dubbed the "lost decade" - is particularly acute.

Since a 2006 coup, power has flipped between elected governments led by or linked to self-exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and rule by an arch-royalist army and its establishment allies.

In that time competing streets protests have shunted democracy aside and seen scores killed on Bangkok's streets.

The turmoil has been compounded by the frail health of 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as competing elites jostle ahead of any transition.

'Fuel political instability' 

The most divisive clauses in the charter call for a junta-appointed senate to check elected lawmakers and increased powers for courts, which are already accused of political bias.

Another clause makes it easy to begin impeachment proceedings.

The charter "creates undemocratic institutions, weakens the power of future elected governments, and is likely to fuel political instability," the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) concluded in a recent analysis.

Debate has also been curtailed ahead of the vote, prompting international criticism from allies and the United Nations.

At least 195 arrests have been made under a vaguely worded special law that effectively bans campaigning or criticism of the charter, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

As a result, interest in the poll appears thin.

A low turnout is likely to favour the military because the charter only needs a simple majority of those who vote to pass, not a majority of the 50 million registered voters.

But the two main political parties in Thailand - who rarely agree - have both come out against the charter, which could prompt a higher turnout.

Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha has promised to hold elections in the summer of 2017, whether or not the charter is passed. But his previous election date promises have slipped.

Preliminary results of the referendum are expected around 9:00 pm (1400 GMT) today, with final results to be confirmed three days later.

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