Junta gags anti-charter campaigners

Khon Kaen, a centre for opposition to military rule. Source: Wikimedia

In northeast Thailand, the main power base of the former democratically elected government, soldiers patrol university campuses and hold “attitude-adjustment sessions” at their bases for anyone who speaks out.

The opposition is unable to mount a campaign against an August 7 referendum on the junta-drafted constitution in what will be the first electoral test since the military’s May 2014 take over.

The junta has outlawed debate of the draft constitution, which observers argue could bolster martial influence within the political system and are alarmed at the rising number of arrests under the oppressive lese majeste law.

“We have concerns that the law is being interpreted this way and are worried that this could open the door to even more prosecutions,” said Jeremy Laurence of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Since the military coup in 2014, we’ve documented 70 cases involving this [lese majeste] law.”

“The soldiers have successfully built fear,” said Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, a law student at Khon Kaen University in the northeast and a critic of military rule.

“Referendum or no referendum, they’ve won.”

Jatupat and 13 other students were arrested in 2015 after protesting against the generals.

The new constitution would have an appointed upper house, with a proportion of seats set aside for the armed forces and police.

The generals argue that military senators are necessary to oversee a five-year “transitional period” before civilians are allowed to rule again.

In the background, the military is determined to hold the levers of power when ailing 88-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej dies, with the government increasingly monitoring private correspondence for mentions of the monarch.

Australia says it will question Thai royal defamation laws at a United Nations human rights review this week, after an activist’s mother was charged for just receiving Facebook messages.

The authorities claim that Patnaree Chankij’s failed to reprimand her Facebook friend who sent her the private messages. She could be jailed for 15 years.

Human Rights Watch said it marked a “new low” in the misuse of the lese majeste law and the UN said it was “deeply concerned” about the case.

The north and northeast, known as Isaan, is a stronghold of “red shirt” supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed in 2006 coup.

Thaksin and his populist allies have won every democratic election since the millennium and have been loathed by institutions aligned with the royalist elite: the military and Bangkok’s middle class.

But Thaksin remains popular among Isaan’s poor, largely agricultural population. He poured money into developing the region, invested in health care, paid subsidies to farmers and promoted sustainable development. Conspiracy theories have circulated that Thailand’s tradition elite did not want to see the agricultural backbone of the economy educated and provided with opportunities outside of farming.