Interview with activist challenging Thai junta on referendum

 
Since the release of the draft constitution, the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has formally and informally suppressed criticism of the draft as well as the referendum itself. The Public Referendum Bill, soon to be enacted, stipulates that anyone who campaigns against the referendum may be jailed for 10 years. On 19 April, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan, the deputy junta head and Minister of Defence, has recently said that people should not stage any campaign relating to the referendum on the draft constitution, which will be held on 7 August. It is obvious that Thais are not going to vote in the referendum in a free and fair manner. 
 
A group of activists called Red Path (senthang si daeng) are determined to defy the junta’s rule by campaigning against the draft charter, which they see as leading to more political chaos. Anurak Jentawanit, also known as “Ford Red Path”, is a core member of the group. He has been harassed by thugs and military officers several times since the group held its first activity campaigning against the draft in February 2016. Despite the pressure, the group continues its activities with some twists. Instead of distributing only Vote No stickers, the group decided to print and distribute Vote Yes stickers as well, and call their activities a campaign to raise awareness on the referendum instead. Ford however told Prachatai that the Vote No stickers are a lot more popular than the Vote Yes. 
 
Ford and his Red Path colleagues bravely campaign in public on 21 February 2016 for a ‘No’ vote' at Ratchprasong intersection, Bangkok
 
“Some citizens have asked me if they would be in danger or be jailed if they voted in the referendum. These are actual questions that I have been asked by villagers,” Ford told Prachatai. 
 
The Red Path group became well-known after the 2010 crackdown on red shirt demonstrators when they regularly held activities to support provincial villagers, such as bike-riding campaigns or fundraising for those affected by the crackdown, and political prisoners. 
 

Citizens afraid to speak out about the draft constitution

 
Ford said the Public Referendum Bill in particular has created a climate of fear among voters. So a large number of citizens are simply in fear of expressing any opinions about draft constitution. Ford also said that during his awareness campaign, some people showed indifference and boredom towards politics, especially when it involved arguing with people who think differently and mobs that shut down the city. Others were simply afraid of anything political. These attitudes, he said, are a significant obstacle for the referendum, since most people still do not know how dangerous the current draft constitution is. The expression of political viewpoints is so limited that even the Constitution Drafting Committee is unable to hold a forum to adequately inform the public. Citizens are therefore confused about the pros and cons of the draft. People are unable to answer questions such as “Will it really expose corruption?” or “When is the referendum?” 
 
Ford runs a silent Vote No campaign on 21 February 2016 Video by Fahroong Srikhao
 
 

Campaign harassed

 
After the coup, says Ford, soldiers made three to four intimidating visits to his home. This does not include the times when officers came to escort him to court or when they searched his house. His “Vote No” campaigns have led to soldiers and security officials visiting his home no less than five times. Since he started his campaigns, says Ford, he has become used to these visits, so much so that they seem normal rather than harassment. The officers who visit him, he says, are in uniform and polite, unlike the groups he encounters while campaigning. Once, when he was campaigning at Silom, he was harassed by plainclothes soldiers, who first came in a group of five to six before increasing to a group of 20. 
 
 
 
Ford tells of an episode he encountered while campaigning in front of the Dusit Thani Hotel. Some large, muscular men came and stood in front of him, with unfriendly expressions on their faces. One of them confronted Ford and asked questions in a provocative tone, such as “What are you doing here? What are you campaigning for? What more do you want, rallying here?” He replied that he was just campaigning for people to vote in the referendum. After that the plainclothes soldiers followed him for the rest of the day, surrounding him wherever he went. When he stopped to talk to interested citizens, the men would push in between them, clearly attempting to disrupt the conversation. The men would even pull off the “Vote No” stickers that citizens stuck on their own cars. They would berate these people, saying “Why do you need to accept stickers? The country and society is peaceful and good already!” 
 
Finally, there were so many plainclothes men that Ford had to cancel the event because a police officer asked him to, fearing that it would lead to unrest. A BTS official even stopped Ford and his group from using the skytrain, because the men were still following them, and there was concern that the other passengers would be affected. Finally, Ford had to call a taxi.
 
“We promised them that we would cancel the activity, but they kept following us. The way they followed us made us feel like we were being hunted, like in action films. They followed us as a synchronized group, looking left and right, surrounding us as we bought our tickets, taking pictures and videos of us. It was an invasion of our privacy, and it was harassment. In our group there are women too, and they felt very unsafe.”
 

Lawful activity still prevented

 

Activity staged on 6 March 2016 at Victory Monument, Bangkok
 
 
Still, Ford said that he is “not afraid” in his current campaign. He believes his campaign is completely legal under NCPO’s Orders, Public Assembly Act, and the Public Referendum Bill. 
 
Ford carefully arranged his campaign so that it will not breach any law. For example, he campaigns in a group of only four people since NCPO Order No. 13/2015 prohibits political assemblies of five people or more. Their campaigns don’t make loud noises or signs, and do not use incendiary words or actions. Lately the group distributed both Vote Yes and Vote No stickers, so that it will appear as a campaign to raise awareness for people to vote in the referendum on 7 August. 
 
The group has done its best to avoid problems with the authorities and at the same time campaign on the referendum. For example, before holding the bike-riding campaign on the referendum to visit villagers in the provinces, he sent an official letter to inform the national police chief when and where the activity would take place, as well as the entire itinerary of the activity. When he and his group started out biking, the national police chief contacted local police to facilitate their convenience and safety. “This is a lawful, legal technique that activists should keep in mind,” said Ford.
 
Of course, says Ford, there are police, security officials and soldiers watching him at all times. Being watched causes him to be extra cautious, so he chooses to campaign in more public spots of a city. “Activists in a politically unstable, military-run country like ours have to be careful: courage isn’t enough, twice the caution is also necessary.”
 

Disappointed with NCPO’s draft

 
Activity staged on 13 March 2015 at Wong Win Yai Circle, Bangkok
 
After the coup, Ford already felt uneasy, but still held out hope that the country would get a Constitution that would revolutionize the political scene by lessening the power of independent organizations like the Constitutional Court and the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), as the NCPO promised. He had hoped that the Thai people would eventually get an improved Constitution; they just had to endure 2-3 years with this administration in exchange for a better future. 
 
But as soon as this draft constitution was released, he was sorely disappointed, since it was even worse than the 2007 Constitution. The Constitutional Court and even the military would be more powerful through the increased number of senators and appointments by the NCPO. Citizens would have even less power under this constitution, rubbing salt into the wound. If this constitution was passed, then the political scene in Thailand would be even more chaotic than it is now: elected governments would not have the power to administer the country, like the Yingluck or Somchai governments, which met their end in mobs, leading to a coup and regressive development in Thai politics. As a long-time activist, Ford believes that whether or not the country moves forward depends, above all other factors, on what rules are drawn up, which prompted him to hold activities to raise awareness on the referendum vote.
 
If this draft constitution does not pass the referendum, as he hopes, Ford predicts that the 2014 interim constitution states that the NCPO must implement a past constitution for use. However, since the political situation is quite unstable, there is no way to know which Constitution will be picked. Still, the more pressing issue at hand is to stop this draft constitution from being implemented. 
 
“I want people to start questioning the process of the referendum, such as, if this draft constitution is not implemented, then which constitution will be? The 1997 Constitution, the most democratic one? The 2007 one? The recently overturned 2016 one? Citizens should have the option to choose which constitution they want, which is the more democratic way to do things, instead of just saying Yes or No.”
 
 
The story was written by Janjira Linthong in Thai for Prachatai, translated into English by Asaree Thaitrakulpanich, and edited by Thaweeporn Kummetha
 
 
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