Asia - Pacific

Free expression called for ahead of Thai charter vote

MPs from Southeast Asian bloc call on Thai junta to allow freedom of expression ahead of referendum on draft constitution

30.06.2016
Free expression called for ahead of Thai charter vote FILE PHOTO

By Max Constant

BANGKOK

Lawmakers from a Southeast Asian regional bloc called on the Thai junta Thursday to allow freedom of expression ahead of a crucial constitutional referendum.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) statement was released a day after Thailand’s constitutional court upheld a referendum law clause restricting freedom of expression and campaigning before the Aug. 7 vote.

The chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights said the court’s decision “to uphold this overly broad statute which has already been used to arrest and intimidate activists and stifle criticism, marks yet another disappointing setback for freedom of expression in Thailand”.

“If the upcoming referendum is to have a single shred of legitimacy, the Thai authorities must immediately allow for free and open debate in advance of the vote,” added Charles Santiago, a lawmaker in Malaysia’s parliament.

The Aug. 7 referendum will ask Thai voters if they approve or reject a draft constitution written by a military-appointed committee of legal experts following a May 2014 coup against the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra.

Article 61 of the referendum law prohibits “publication of false information” by any media that might influence the public’s votes, and bars people from “spreading information in a violent, aggressive, vulgar or coercive manner”.

Those accused of breaking these rules are liable to a maximum jail term of 10 years.

On Wednesday, the Thai constitutional court ruled that the clause did not contradict the interim charter written by junta-appointed jurists after the May 22, 2014 coup.

The director of the iLaw project, an organization that monitors abuses by authorities against public liberties, expressed his disappointment with Wednesday’s decision.

“Despite the ruling, it is still time to open discussions on the draft charter. It is still not too late for the authorities to improve the atmosphere,” Jon Ungphakorn told the Bangkok Post.

On June 23, 13 student activists were arrested under article 61 in Samut Prakan province, east of Bangkok, for distributing campaign materials urging citizens to vote “no” in the referendum.

They were also charged with violating a ban on political gatherings of more than five people.

Six of them have been released on bail, but seven others refused the bail conditions and remain detained at a Bangkok remand prison.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights called for their release and for the dropping of all charges against them.

“These arrests underline the absurdity of the rules surrounding the upcoming referendum,” chairman Santiago said in Thursday’s statement.

“These individuals were trying to promote responsible civic engagement, working to inform the public about the draft constitution,” he added. “It just underscores the junta’s apparent desire to shut down all debate and force feed this charter to the Thai people.”

Reacting to the controversy over the arrests, Thailand’s deputy-prime minister and defense minister, Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, told local reporters Wednesday that “freedom of expression was not necessary for Thailand nowadays” as the country was in a “transitional period”.

“We are now in need of peace and order. If anyone breaches the law, I will catch them all,” added Wongsuwan.

The draft constitution has been criticized by party leaders on both sides of the political spectrum, as well as by academics and media. The draft allows for a senate fully-appointed by the junta and for a non-elected “outsider” to become prime minister.

Junta opponents fear that such a system will allow a military officer or a civilian acting on behalf of the military to become premier.

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