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Thailand junta seeks to extend its power with constitutional referendum

Published Aug. 7, 2016

BANGKOK, Thailand — Two years after seizing power, Thailand's military junta will hold a national referendum today on a new constitution that it casts as an essential step toward restoring democracy.

But the junta has blocked opponents from campaigning against the measure, banned election monitors and restricted news coverage of the referendum. And the proposed constitution, critics say, would weaken the role of elected officials and extend the military's influence for years to come.

The vote will be the first major test of the military's standing with the public, as much a referendum on the legitimacy of military rule as on the draft constitution. But no matter the outcome, the junta will remain in control until it decides to hand power back to an elected government.

For Thailand, which changes constitutions more often than the United States changes presidents, the proposed charter is not necessarily expected to endure. But it seeks to reduce the influence of any one politician or party, a measure that seems particularly directed at populist leaders who appeal to the poorer rural population of northern Thailand.

The junta, which has portrayed itself as the only institution capable of maintaining stability in the bitterly divided country, says that by minimizing the influence of any party, the new structure would help prevent corruption and bring fairness.

But if the aim is democracy, the means are hardly reassuring.

At least 120 opponents of the proposed constitution have been arrested on suspicion of distributing false information about the measure, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, or of violating other campaign restrictions, including a ban on assemblies of more than five people, said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The military has defended the restrictions on opposition campaigning, as well as the banning of party election monitors.