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Draft ready for a divided country

The fate of the proposed charter now lies with Thai citizens, and the campaign to influence their choice is on

Published on July 8, 2007

And the nation keeps limping on. Friday's passage of the new draft charter by the Constitution Drafting Assembly comes as no surprise. Optimists must have felt that at least the time frame for the country's promised return to democracy remains considerably realistic. Whether it was due to rain, the authorities' all-out blockade or its funds running dry, the anti-coup campaign failed to deliver a major blow to the new draft. At least not yet, because the real war will be fought on August 19, when Thais are scheduled to cast ballots for the first time since last year's coup to decide whether to enshrine the document as the highest law in the land.

Campaigns are underway. Idealistic anti-coup activists will be pushing hard for a no vote at the referendum as a show of civil disobedience. Pro-Thaksin groups will also take advantage of anti-coup sentiments and seek a no vote for their own benefit. There are also those who are genuinely against certain clauses in the draft who may be tempted to reject the entire document. Last but not least, the possible backlash of the dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai Party, popular among the northern and northeastern rural poor, might come to a head on referendum day.

These forces, though driven by different ideologies and interests, could easily converge and become a formidable movement. They will be helped, more or less, by an ill-advised remark by interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who inexplicably threatened legal action against those who crusade in opposition to the referendum.

Surayud was referring to attempts to undermine the referendum process, not the charter draft, but the threat was unwise nonetheless. First, it has already been misinterpreted as the state's indirect attempt to coerce people into voting in favour of the draft.

Even if Surayud were to insist that the government would only target anti-referendum campaigns, the threat remains controversial and borders on violating the political rights of the Thai people just the same.

Surayud's anxiety is understandable. Although he warned that a no vote could mean that an old constitution, most likely the one that was abolished by the coup leaders, would be revived and readjusted to suit the situation, he must know that a referendum loss could trigger further turmoil. His government's already thin legitimacy would be dealt a major blow, and last year's coup, already unpopular in the eyes of the foreign community, will virtually have no justification left.

Rejection of the charter draft would magnify the speed of the Thai political roller-coaster and uncertainties would resurface and multiply. The best-case scenario is that a panic-stricken junta would yield power and let go. An election would then take place early, though everyone would have to keep their fingers crossed after that. The worst-case scenario is that we would have no time to find a replacement temporary charter and hold an early election because the pressure on the junta to get out the door immediately would be immense. There would then be a vacuum and renewed confrontation, and the consequences would be even more unpredictable.

Thailand's political divide will mean that there will be many "proxy voters" who don't care about what's written in the draft charter. This huge group of voters is polarised: one side has decided to vote no regardless of the content, considering the document to be the legacy of an undemocratic regime, or wanting to condemn the coup for the benefit of Thaksin or Thai Rak Thai. The other side will vote in favour of the charter not because they like the content, but because they believe the draft's passage in the referendum will provide a stronger assurance that Thaksin Shinawatra will be kept at bay.

Non-partisan poor villagers will be badly confused by the propaganda that will come at them left, right and centre. Reject the draft to show the real power of the people and get back what they took from you so unjustly, one side will tell them. Embrace it so the country will move on with better safeguards in place against the political ills that have crippled our nation, the other side will counter. Read it first and vote your heart, some may say.

August 19 will be a historic day. But whether it will provide a milestone remains to be seen.

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