World Bulletin / News Desk
Voters cast their ballots at polls across Thailand on Sunday in a referendum on a junta-sponsored draft constitution that critics say may legitimize military influence over the Southeast Asian nation for the next five years.
Queues formed around the capital Bangkok as the public voted for the first time since the military took power in a coup in May 2014.
At stake is a military-drafted charter that critics accuse of being undemocratic and prolonging military rule, and which includes provisions allowing for a military-appointed 250-member senate and for an un-elected “outsider” -- and possibly a retired military officer -- prime minister.
Among those who flocked to a polling station in northern Bangkok was Somchai Banyat, a 49-year-old legal advisor.
"I will make my voice be heard," he said. "We have no democratic vote for over two years and it is time the military heard our voice."
Somchai declined to state if he would vote in favor of the charter, citing a junta law that forbids public discussion of the referendum and the charter -- a measure under which critics, including students and politicians, have been arrested.
The military government has said that if the public approves the charter, elections will be held in September 2017 -- but if it is rejected, they will draft a new charter, likely prolonging their rule.
Of the voters interviewed after casting their ballots on Sunday morning, the majority said they had voted to accept the 279-article draft charter.
At a polling station in a Buddhist temple in eastern Bangkok, Vichian Sirisombath described the document as being “against corruption”.
“In the previous democratic system, there were no real penalties against corrupt politicians. At least, this constitution makes them think twice before they adopt a corrupt behavior,” he said.
Many of the interviewees concurred with his assessment, including Montira Kachornprasert, a middle-aged woman who voted along with her parents and underlined that “corruption was the biggest problem” in Thailand.
Ramphai Kittakorn, who cast her vote at a polling station in a school near Bangkok’s main slum Klong Toey, said that she approved of the charter “because it forces the state to support the citizens from their birth until their old age”.
“Before authorities were only supporting primary education and high school,” she said. “I believe if the majority of Thais accept the draft charter, order will prevail. At least, there will be a strong framework for political activities.”
One of the very few voters who admitted to voting against the draft charter was an employee dressed in sports attire, who refused to give his name due to what he described as the “unfree atmosphere” surrounding the referendum. Saying he had to rush, he looked with a worried expression toward police officers monitoring the polling station.
“This constitution is not OK, there are so many bad things in it,” he said, before apologizing and saying he had to attend to “urgent affairs”.
The military, which overthrew the elected government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in the May 2014 coup, has strictly limited public debate before the referendum, banning seminars and arresting activists who publicly discussed the content of the draft.
Only in the ten days immediately preceding the Sunday vote, some TV debates were organized with participants -- mostly bureaucrats and some civil society representatives -- selected by authorities. No politicians from any side of the political spectrum were included.
Unofficial results are expected to be announced around 9 p.m. (1400GMT), with official results to be announced by Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the country’s majority Muslim south was shaken Saturday evening by a series of coordinated small explosions, which the military said were an attempt to create fear before the vote.
A total of 17 remote-controlled bombs exploded in a 10-minute period in several districts of Narathiwat province, damaging a number of electric poles but resulting in no casualties.
The Thai south has been destabilized by a separatist insurgency for decades, with a new wave of violence hitting the region in 2004 -- since when more than 6,500 people have been killed and over 11,000 others injured.
After the 2014 coup, the military regime initially continued the negotiations launched by Yingluck Shinawatra’s government with the insurgent groups, but no progress has been reported for several months.Güncelleme Tarihi: 07 Ağustos 2016, 10:36