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Referendum law or penalty law?

Focus is on punishments rather than procedures and guidelines for holding a vote on new charter

The referendum bill should have been renamed "penalties on the referendum" when it passed the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) because the proposed bill said little about the referendum itself but more about harsh punishments for violators of the referendum's procedure.

The bill is currently under its second reading in the NLA, which might take three weeks or so, before it is passed into law.

"The law is likely to be issued to threaten and sentence those who oppose the constitution and campaign to reject it," said NLA member Sangsith Piriyarangsan.

The Council of State, the government's legal adviser, ought to have recommended a change in the name of the law - as the "penal law for the referendum" - because the main content of the proposed bill talked only about guilt and punishment.

The Election Commission (EC), which drafted the bill, insisted that the law should be dubbed a "Referendum Law", otherwise it could scare voters.

But the EC is misleading the public about the law and the referendum, since the law says nothing about referendum procedure.

In fact, the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) has quietly issued regulations and procedures for the referendum since March. Even without the proposed law, the referendum on the new constitution could be conducted smoothly under such regulations - unless the authorities want to hand down sentences to somebody who disrupt the referendum.

Eight of 13 articles in the referendum bill mention guilt and punishment, but actions that carry the punishment were not defined. 

Article 10, for example, says those who make trouble, obstruct or do anything that could disturb the referendum would be jailed for a maximum of 10 years or fined up to Bt200,000.

If the wrongdoer is an executive of a political party, he or she would be banned from politics for five years. It's unclear what kind of action could be considered "making trouble".

"We understand that the bill is being drafted during an abnormal situation and the drafters might want to bluff the opposition, but the punishments are too tough," said Sangsith, who was one of the 16-member NLA committee that read and modified the bill. "This is ill intentioned and against the principle of the rule of law," he said.

However, if enforced strictly, the law could affect not only anti-junta activists or politicians but also members of the CDA and the junta. Article 10 prohibits any parties using influence to persuade voters to cast ballots in favour or not in favour of the constitution. Any violators, from whatever side, could face a maximum 10 years in prison.

Members of the CDA's public relations committee said they would stop campaigning in favour of the constitution as soon as the law comes into force, since to do so would be against the law. Likewise, the military top brass cannot express support for the draft constitution since their authority and power might influence public opinion and voters' decisions.

Komsan Phokong, a constitution drafter, said the law created difficulties for the CDA's PR committee. "It does not make sense that the drafters cannot promote the constitution they have written," he said.

Academics and members of media might also cry foul, as their freedom will be restricted. The referendum law prohibits the conducting of opinion polls from seven days before referendum day. Those who publicise results of polls during this period face a maximum of three years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to Bt60,000. Under the law, results of exit polls cannot be released before the close of voting.

The bill drafters have written the law so that it will be apply only to this constitution referendum. Strange for this country to have a one-off law.

Somroutai Sapsomboon

Supalak G Khundee

The Nation


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