Charter referendum rules unfair to critics: former Law Reform Commissioner

A former Law Reform Commissioner says that a fair referendum on the draft constitution is only a dream under the repressive political environment, while an Election Commissioner maintains that laws to regulate campaigns on the draft are necessary to prevent political conflict.

BBC Thai reported on Monday, 2 May 2016, that Pairoj Polpetch, a human rights activist and former member of the Law Reform Commission of Thailand (LRTC), urged the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) and Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) to think of the people as the referendum on the draft constitution approaches.

Pairoj said that the current political environment is not conducive for a public referendum on the draft as Articles 10 and 61 of the controversial Public Referendum Act allow only the authorities to conduct campaigns to promote the draft constitution while limiting the rights and liberties of critics of the draft constitution.

Comparing the current Public Referendum Act with the 2009 version, Pairoj said that the earlier act is better because it is more open towards criticism, said Pairoj.

The former LRTC commissioner said that current Public Referendum Act written by the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) is unfair; he said that people should be allowed to criticise the draft freely as long as it does not lead to violence and chaos.

He concluded that if people are not allowed space to voice their opinions on the draft constitution, even after the referendum on the draft is held, there is no guarantee that political conflict will not arise.

On Tuesday, 3 May 2016, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), issued a statement on the upcoming referendum, saying that people should have the freedom to criticise the draft constitution.  

The NHRC added that the Referendum Act should be interpreted in ways which do not prevent people from expressing their thoughts on the draft constitution.

According to Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, ECT commissioner, the enactment of laws to regulate campaigns on the draft constitution is necessary in order to prevent conflict. However, he added that the act is not perfect and that it was changed by the NLA, whose members were appointed by the junta, before it was enacted, in order to prevent political groups from taking advantage of the political situation.

He added that the act inclusively allows people to execute their rights in the process to pass the draft constitution.

Recently, the ECT issued a set of rules to regulate referendum campaigns, listing six ‘dos’ and eight ‘don’ts’ in addition to the controversial Referendum Act. The new rules have not yet been published in the Royal Gazette.

Pairoj noted that the dos are reasonable, but questioned the eight don’ts, as one of them bans people from pressing ‘like’ on social media messages about the draft constitution while rule No. 4 states that seminars on the draft constitution cannot be held without the participation of state agencies.

Article 61 of the Referendum Act imposes a prison term of up to 10 years, a fine of up to 200,000 baht and loss of electoral rights for five years on anyone who publishes or distributes content about the draft constitution which deviates from the facts, contains rude and violent language, or threateningly discourages voters from participating in the referendum.

Last week, Jiraphan Tanmani, President of the Rathawatanamani Fund -- an organization raising funds to promote autism rights -- was arrested for publishing content that was alleged to be severe, aggressive and rude with the intention of persuading the public to accept or not accept the draft charter in the August referendum.

She was arrested under Article 61 of the Referendum Act only eight hours after Somchai, Election Commissioner of Thailand, filed the complaint on the case.