BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's coup-installed military regime has told citizens to vote "yes" for a new constitution, written while half the country is muzzled under martial law, or accept a mysterious back-up constitution which is being kept secret from the public.

In a bizarre political game of constitutional hide-and-seek, the junta refused to reveal which of Thailand's 17 previous constitutions it might use, or what amendments might be added, if a majority "no" vote on Aug. 19 thwarts their draft.

"This is ridiculous. It is a matter of national interest and concern," said Somchai Preechasilpakul, dean of Chiang Mai University's law faculty.

The coup leaders "should not be hiding anything," Mr. Somchai said on Aug. 4.

Many Thai and foreign analysts predicted a victory for the regime's "yes" campaign, after the junta mailed copies of the new, thick constitution to millions of households in this Southeast Asian Buddhist nation.

"I received one, and I started to read it, but I didn't finish," one middle-aged businesswoman, who asked not to be identified, said in an interview.

"I think we Thais are lazy and not many people will read the entire constitution. But I will vote 'yes' because they say it is an improvement."

The junta also offered a simplified cartoon version of the draft constitution for apathetic or poorly educated Thais.

The new constitution could help battle corruption and tighten loopholes which flawed the popular 1997 "people's constitution," according to analysts and regime officials.

Elected politicians would be weakened and have their numbers shrunken, however, while appointed judges would be gain powers to install top officials.

The politicized, U.S.-trained military would also increase its influence in Thailand, a "non-NATO ally" of America.

A 150-seat Senate would include 76 elected politicians and 74 appointed members.

"The appointment of half of the senators also insults the intelligence of the people," said Thongbai Thongpao, a prominent human rights lawyer.

Parliament's 480-member Lower House would get 400 members elected by constituency, plus 80 elected by proportional representation -- a mix designed to hobble big political parties, according to Chulalongkorn University law professor Vitit Muntarbhorn.

"The draft text clearly shows a degree of mistrust towards politicians, especially those in the executive," Mr. Vitit wrote in an analysis published on Aug. 6.

Supporters of a "no" vote complained of harassment and threats, after their anti-coup rallies attracted several thousand people in Bangkok in recent weeks.

"The referendum on the draft constitution has the facade of being a democratic choice, but it is being carried out under a distinctly undemocratic and repressive climate," the English-language Bangkok Post's Aug. 1 editorial said.

"The threat that the country will remain unsettled unless we vote for the draft charter is a cheap scare tactic, but one that seems to be working," the editorial said.

The junta, meanwhile, continues to demonize and prosecute Thaksin Shinawatra, the thrice-elected prime minister it toppled on Sept. 19, 2006 in a bloodless coup.

A "yes" vote will prevent Mr. Thaksin, his cronies, and other politicians from wielding abusive political and financial power, the regime said.

Junta-appointed tribunals froze billions of dollars in cash and assets held by Mr. Thaksin, his family and top officials, amid charges -- still unproven -- of massive corruption.

The new constitution gives amnesty to the coup leaders who used tanks, armored personnel carriers and hundreds of armed troops to overthrow Mr. Thaksin's authoritarian, monopolistic government.

Despite more than a dozen coups since the 1930s, the 2006 coup was cheered by many well-off Thai residents, businessmen, intellectuals, reporters, academics and others, but criticism increased after the country's economy faltered.

Mr. Thaksin hides in self-exile in England, where he recently purchased the Manchester City football club while defending his five-year administration from charges of wrongdoing.

"If there were to be free and fair elections, my party would win again, because this is the first time in Thai history that they have overthrown a very popular government," Mr. Thaksin said in Manchester on Aug. 5.

Human rights campaigners demand the regime investigate 2,500 extra-judicial killings committed during three months in 2003, when Mr. Thaksin led a brutal "war on drugs."

Mr. Thaksin vowed to create "drug-free" provinces, and officials proudly posted statistics of the spiraling death toll.

Mr. Thaksin claimed the killings were by smugglers, dealers and addicts murdering each other in a frenzied turf war.

"As far as I am concerned, he [Mr. Thaksin] has never instructed any public officer to execute a drug dealer," Mr. Thaksin's legal adviser, Noppadon Pattama, said on July 31.

"We just tried to solve the drug problem in Thailand by getting tough with criminals. But he has never issued any instructions for shoot-to-ill policies," Mr. Noppadon told reporters.

Mr. Thaksin is a former police officer, and received a master's degree in criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University, and a Ph.D. in criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

He met, and adored, American President George W. Bush.

"We are both Texans, and have a Texas style of leadership," Mr. Thaksin told applauding U.S. investors in 2004.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978 and is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. He received Columbia University's Foreign Correspondents Award, and his web page is