Striding into a Bangkok Starbucks wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “I Love Gen. Prayuth,” referring to Thailand’s cantankerous junta chief, Rackchart Wong-Arthichart doesn’t seem your typical student democracy activist. But then he points out a pair of crossed fingers printed on the back. “I designed it myself,” he grins. “We mainly do satirical campaigns against the military government.”
Rackchart is a member of the Citizens Resistance, a student-led group peacefully agitating for a return to democracy in a nation ruled by the military since a coup on May 22, 2014. On Sunday, Thailand is holding a referendum on a new constitution that critics say will entrench military rule. The draft includes provisions for an unelected Prime Minister and a 250-strong Upper House entirely appointed by the military. The 500-member Lower House would be elected by a new single transferable vote system. Analysts say it is specifically designed to hobble the influence of the populist party of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Any discussion of the draft has been banned.
“They are going to form a government inside the government,” says Rackchart. “It’s going to be worse than ever and it will be very hard to fix or do anything.”
Citizens Resistance has been campaigning strongly against the draft. For almost a year, its 30-odd members have published tens of thousands of copies of a monthly protest magazine, as well as distributing leaflets and campaigning via social media. They have also organized silent protests at iconic landmarks in Bangkok. Thais have taken to myriad creative ways to register dissent: from posting pictures of Transformers and Star Wars stormtroopers on social media, to reading George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 in public or simply eating sandwiches. “We just silently stood still,” says Rackchart. “It was inspired by [Erdem Gunduz’s] standing-man protests in Taksim Square in Turkey.”
Most recently, Citizens Resistance has been tweaking the lyrics of popular music videos to lampoon the military. The junta doesn’t see the funny side and has charged several members of the group, including Rackchart, with attempting to disrupt the referendum vote. He could face ten years in prison if convicted.
“The worst thing is that we have to face trial in military court,” he says. “There’s no transparency in military court, there is no justice there.”
Many democracy activists have already had a taste of detention. Rangsiman Rome, a 24-year-old member of the New Democracy Movement, which is allied with Citizens Resistance, has spent two stints of 12 days behind bars since the coup. The law graduate student had his head shaved and says he was forced to sleep 40 to a cell with robbers, fraudsters and hit men. “When everyone was sleeping there wasn’t enough room to walk around,” he says. “Some European and African prisoners were too big and couldn’t even stretch out.”
Rangsiman may be seeing prison again soon. He faces an additional five charges — everything from “stirring up political turmoil” to refusing to provide fingerprints — that could see him imprisoned for 18 years. “They are political charges, it’s nothing to do with the law at all,” he says, “so I believe that if we win the political fight then we can beat all the charges.”
That political fight is serious for all of Thailand’s 68 million people. A once thriving economy is backsliding, vital tourist numbers are down and rights routinely trampled on. Thailand is also America’s oldest ally in Asia and a lynchpin of the Obama administration’s “rebalancing” to the region. But the junta has been growing closer to China, repatriating Uighur asylum seekers and other persons of interest without a nod to due process.
Of course, there are some supporters of the draft who say it will return stability to a country racked by political paralysis and often bloody street politics. The 2014 coup was ostensibly spurred by mass protests that riled the heart of Bangkok for six months.
Though many believe something else lies behind the sudden intervention. Thailand is in a state of deep anxiety as beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is 88 years old and ailing, nears the end of his reign. As his son and heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, does not command the same respect as his father, the nation’s elite cannot rely on the palace to shield their interests, and instead entrust the military to perform this role as the sensitive time of royal succession approaches.
“They want to make sure that the constitution gives a legal establishment for the military and the Bangkok elite to ensure they still can hold onto power should then the throne be wobbling,” says Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Japan’s Kyoto University.
However, discussion of anything concerning the royal family is extremely dangerous as Thailand boasts the world’s fiercest royal defamation laws. Some have been charged for simply liking Facebook posts. Article 112, as it is known, has increasingly been deployed to silence dissent since the junta seized power.
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Most analysts doubt the constitution will pass after both major parties came out against it. But that’s assuming the generals will allow a clean vote; independent monitoring of the polls has also been banned.
“If it passes, the military regime will say it has legitimacy from the people to continue on,” says Paul Chambers, a political scientist based in the northern city of Chiang Mai. “If it doesn’t, then it will galvanize the opposition.”
That opposition is already swelling. Other than students groups, allied movements in Thailand’s south have sprung from longstanding opposition to perceived military abuses against ethnic Muslim Malay communities. In the north and northeast, the heartland of the ousted Yingluck government, opposition tends to be politically aligned.
Whether that would erupt into mass street protests once again is unclear, but the junta is clearly nervous. Politicians of the former government have been arrested in the run up to the vote. On Thursday, the Bangkok embassies of seven nations — including the U.S. — warned their citizens of possible disturbances surrounding the vote.
Rangsiman doesn’t foresee any immediate trouble, though. “If the constitution is rejected then we will call for the military to not be involved in drafting the replacement,” he says. “If it passes then we will first make sure that the vote was first free and fair.”
Unfortunately for Thais, voting “no” may not achieve the desired result. The junta has said that it will simply draft another charter and enact it without a referendum. Many suspect it would be even more authoritarian than the current draft.
“Either way the promise of elections next year will be very difficult,” says Prajak Kongkirati, assistant professor of political science at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “There will be no quick return to democracy.”
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