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General news >> Wednesday August 15, 2007

A lack of free and open debate

At Monday's government-sponsored rally in Bangkok, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told the crowd: ''Going to vote is a way of exercising your rights.

It is a way of expressing your devotion to democracy and repaying the nation. It is a way to help decide the country's future by exercising your judgement.'' Unfortunately for Malay-speaking villagers in the southernmost provinces who cannot read Thai, it will be difficult for them to exercise judgement because they cannot read it. None of the 19 million copies of the constitution are written in their language. This oversight may simply be due to the relatively short space of time between when the constitution was completed on July 7 and the referendum on Aug 19. But the logistical error brings to light an essential question: What is the point of holding a referendum on something as important as the constitution if people are so ill-informed about what it says?

It is not hard to see why many people view the referendum as a proxy vote on the coup. First, this is the first time the Thai people will be able to cast a legitimate ballot since the political crisis began nearly two years ago. Second, the draft is long and complex, and many people cannot understand the verbose legal language used. Third, a ''No'' vote essentially lets the generals choose any charter they want and make any amendments they want. The next constitution could look nearly identical to this one, no matter what vote is cast. Therefore, a ''No'' vote effectively does more to de-legitimise the coup group than influence which constitution is eventually promulgated. Fourth, the charter was drafted by a group handpicked by the military who were all vehemently anti-Thaksin. Finally, martial law remains in place in 35 provinces, intimidating those who may wish to campaign against the constitution. Ideally, a document which proponents say is much better than the abrogated 1997 charter would encourage free and open debate, but that hasn't been the case.

The government has even gone so far as restricting taxi drivers from putting up anti-charter stickers in their taxi cabs, while authorities happily spend taxpayers' money urging a ''Yes'' vote. Press coverage has largely propped up the ''Yes'' campaign, painting those who oppose the charter as either Thaksin-lovers, or bribe-takers.

Gen Surayud himself has even accused several in the Northeast of taking bribes for votes. While vote-buying is endemic in Thai politics across the board, the PM should refrain from making such allegations without displaying proper evidence. Indeed, if the practice is as widespread as reported, it shouldn't be hard to bring formal charges.

All the same, Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, chairman of the Council for National Security, should state explicitly the security threats that exist to justify keeping martial law in place before the election. We still remember the day after the coup when the army said the power seizure was necessary to prevent forest rangers trained by former minister Yongyuth Tiyapairat from killing protesters from the People's Alliance for Democracy at a rally scheduled for Sept 20, 2006. That now looks like a flimsy cover story as no charges have ever been levelled nor investigation made into the matter.

Either way, it makes us wonder whose security the army is actually protecting by keeping martial law in place? That of the people or the generals?

As the country prepares to vote on Sunday, each citizen will have their own motivation to vote ''Yes'' or ''No''. It is the government's responsibility to encourage a free and open debate, and so far the atmosphere has, at best, been stifled.

Hopefully, when we have a new charter it will be implemented by people who see the benefits of transparency, fairness and freedom to speak and share ideas. That will truly allow people to express their ''devotion to democracy'', as the prime minister wants. Anything less will mean the ongoing suppression of opposing voices, leading to constant instability in the Kingdom.

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