BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's Constitutional Court has upheld a law
that metes out 10 years imprisonment to anyone who voices an opinion
about the junta's favored draft constitution, or campaigns for or
against it before a scheduled nationwide August 7 referendum.
   "If the draft constitution does not pass, a new one has to be
written," coup-installed Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on June
28, one day before the court ruling.
   The court's decision and Mr. Prayuth's orchestration of a new
constitution contrast sharply with dissidents, politicians, local
media, Thai and international human rights groups and others who have
asked that the draft and referendum be open to public debate,
criticism and changes.
   Voters decide on the junta's draft constitution on August 7 by
casting a "yes" or "no" vote.
   Some see the referendum as a popularity test of the junta as it
enters a third year in power.
   Before retiring as army chief and general, Mr. Prayuth led
Thailand's U.S.-trained military in a bloodless May 2014 coup against
an elected civilian government.
   Mr. Prayuth said the referendum will be followed by national
elections in 2017 for Parliament's 500-seat House of Representatives,
plus the junta's appointment of a 250-member Senate.
   The Senate would include six seats for the head of the army, navy,
air force and national police, plus the military's supreme commander
and defense permanent secretary.
   The Constitutional Court's ruling was on a case filed by a
pro-democracy group, Internet Dialogue on Law Reform -- known as iLaw
-- along with academics and others.
   They questioned the legitimacy of the Draft Referendum Act's
Section 61 which warns:
   "Anyone who publishes text, images or sound, through either
newspaper, radio, television, electronic media or other channels, that
is either untruthful, harsh, offensive, rude, inciting or threatening,
with the intention that voters will either not exercise their right to
vote, or vote in a certain way, or not vote, will be considered as a
person creating confusion so that the vote will not proceed properly."
   The Constitutional Court said Section 61 was legal under Mr.
Prayuth's interim constitution which he unveiled shortly after leading
the May 2014 coup.
   "It does not pose any problem pertaining to its legality under the
2014 interim constitution," the court said on June 29.
   "People do not dare to express their opinions on the draft charter,
as they are afraid of being prosecuted," said iLaw's Director Jon
Ungpakorn before the court's decision.
   "Even wearing a T-shirt with messages in favor of, or against, the
draft could lead to 10 years imprisonment," Mr. Jon said.
   "These laws do not impinge on general freedom of expression --
which we believe to be a fundamental element of a democratic society
-- as long as such expression does not undermine public order and
social harmony," the Foreign Ministry said before the ruling.
   Some Thais agree that Mr. Prayuth's control over the process of
creating a new constitution will guide this Buddhist-majority
Southeast Asian nation to peace and prosperity.
   "Many people are sick and tired of political games and politicians
in general, and many are also glad that the military took power, and
happy with the peace and order today," said businessman Chira
Sirisambhand, 59, in an interview.
   Mr. Chira's relatives include generals and other military officers,
active or retired.
   His ancestors served in senior military positions dating back to a
17th century Buddhist kingdom in Ayutthaya -- in today's central
   "I totally agree with" the junta's limits on publicly debating the
draft or campaigning for or against it, Mr. Chira said.
   "Why? Because the groups that are against the referendum can and
will just say anything against it, and their supporters will just
blindly support it.
   "A clash of minds can just lead to another confrontation,
physically or ideologically. We don't need this," Mr. Chira said.
   Mr. Prayuth said if the referendum fails, he would not copy British
Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to resign after the Brexit
   "Do you want me to resign? I will not resign," Mr. Prayuth told
reporters on June 27 after some Thai politicians suggested he follow
Mr. Cameron's example.
   "He [Cameron] did not come to power in the same way I did.  His
country did not have the problems ours does," Mr. Prayuth said.
   On June 20, Mr. Prayuth and his Red Shirt opponents contacted the
U.N. about their worsening confrontation concerning the draft.
   After Mr. Prayuth's 30-minute telephone call to U.N.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Ban's spokesperson said:
   "Referring to reports about restrictions on the freedoms of
expression, opinion and assembly ahead of the August 7 referendum on
the draft constitution, the [U.N.] secretary-general stressed that an
open and inclusive debate would be essential to ensuring the
legitimacy of the constitution and achieving national unity."
   "I explained to him [Mr. Ban] that we have such freedom," Mr.
Prayuth said in a Bangkok Post interview on June 20.
   "As for the draft charter, people throughout the country have been
given a chance to voice their opinions," Mr. Prayuth said.
   The junta is allowing some regime-monitored discussions among
selected people, but unhampered debate or public demonstrations for or
against the draft have been stopped by authorities.
   Police on June 19 also stopped pro-election Red Shirts from
assigning civilians nationwide to staff self-styled "anti-fraud"
centers to monitor the referendum.
   "Authorities informed them [the Red Shirts] that it is against the
law to set up the centers," said National Security Council
Secretary-General, Thawip Netniyom.
   "There is a political motive behind the setting up of the centers.
We are afraid that people may fall victim to distorted information,"
said junta spokesman Col. Piyapong Klinpan.
   The Reds then turned to the U.N. for help.
   "We would like the United Nations to come in and monitor" the
referendum, Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan told reporters after he
and other co-leaders of the popular group petitioned the U.N High
Commissioner for Human Rights at its regional Bangkok headquarters on
June 20.
   Red Shirts, officially known as the United Front for Democracy
Against Dictatorship, reportedly gave the U.N. a petition focusing on
Thailand's lack of free speech to discuss the referendum.
   Some people worry the constitutional crisis may become a protracted
legal squabble which could delay elections.
   The junta said elections would be allowed in 2015, and then said
2016, but again postponed them to 2017.
   "The problem is that the draft constitution is not a liberal one.
It was designed to entrust the power into the hands of the
bureaucracy, civilian and military," said Kasit Piromya, 72, in an
interview on June 5.
   Mr. Kasit is a member of a 200-seat National Reform Steering
Assembly appointed by Mr. Prayuth in October to suggest how to fix
   Mr. Kasit was a senior politician in the military-friendly Democrat Party.
   Even though he works with the junta's assembly, he now appears
concerned that the constitution will cripple politicians.
   "It is a draw-back for democratic advancement," said Mr. Kasit who
was also a foreign minister.
   "Peace and stability cannot occur only under draconian laws and
military rule," he said.
   The next constitution will be Thailand's 20th since 1932 because a
dozen military coups abolished previous charters, while others were
created after political feuds.
   Similar to past constitutions, the draft does not outlaw coups.
   Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was
toppled by Mr. Prayuth's 2014 coup, staged a soft-spoken charm
campaign during May in Thailand's north and northeast, boosting her
supporters' morale while mindful of the junta's censorship laws.
   Ms. Yingluck, who holds a master's degree in politics and business
from Kentucky State University, currently faces criminal charges of
"negligence" allegedly committed during her administration.
   Ms. Yingluck, elected in 2011, is widely perceived as politically
subservient to her authoritarian elder brother former Prime Minister
Thaksin Shinawatra who fell in a 2006 military coup.
   Mr. Thaksin is an international fugitive dodging a two-year prison
sentence for a corruption conviction.
   In 2010, the siblings' Red Shirt supporters staged a Bangkok
insurrection demanding immediate elections.
   More than 90 people died during the nine-week confrontation with
the military, including some troops but mostly Red civilians.
   The army used armored personnel carriers to finally crush the Reds'
bamboo-and-barbed wire barricades.