“I am not afraid. I speak the truth. If they put me in jail because they can’t accept the truth, let them. At least my voice is heard outside the country and I hope it will help someday.”
On 7 August, millions of people in Thailand are expected to take to the polls to vote on a controversial referendum, which will give them the choice to accept or reject a draft constitution drawn up by the military-backed National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO).
According to critics, the proposed constitution would weaken the role of elected officials and extend the military’s influence in Thailand. If the people of Thailand do decide to approve the draft constitution, the military junta – who have been in power since the 2014 coup – would be able to claim legitimacy and plan the general election in 2017.
Human rights activists around the world have also raised concerns about an imposed ban on political campaigning by the military junta, noting that they are effectively preventing debate on the referendum and using the ban to silence those who might vote against them.
Amid the crackdown on free speech in the country, the IPF spoke to young people in Thailand to find out what their views are on the constitution, the campaigning ban, the military junta, and the future of their country.
Relevance of the referendum
Although the referendum has been seen as a crucial moment in Thai politics, many young people believe that it will have no real impact. Many told us that the ban on political campaigning meant that citizens were not getting enough information to make an informed vote on referendum day.
“The referendum is a huge fraud from the junta government,” said Champ, a young journalist from Bangkok. “It will not make any change as long as the military is still running the country.”
He explained that he had only found out a few days before the referendum that there was a second question on the ballot and that the referendum wasn’t just one question about the draft constitution.
“Authorities did not give as much information to citizens as it could have. If you walk on the street in Bangkok and ask people, I’m pretty sure that below five out of ten know what the new constitution is about.”
Pannika Wanich, a 28-year-old journalist and host of a TV show, agreed with Champ’s views on the referendum being pointless due to the silencing of free discussion. But she also acknowledged that it was a step forward to have a referendum at all.
“This is the first time after two years of military rule that the Thais will be able to voice their opinion out loud,” said Pannika. “This is certainly not a free and fair referendum but it is the only chance we have to show our resistance, or support, towards the junta. This is not a referendum on constitution, but on the junta.”
However, Pannika also raised concerns about the crackdown on political discussion in the run up to voting day. She said that by forcing people to remain silent on their views, a majority of the country had remained ignorant about the political process, adding: “Most people don’t get enough information to realise how the constitution can affect their lives.”
“The fact that people have to be wary of what they say about the constitution is the main reason that makes this referendum illegitimate.”
The controversial draft constitution
When it came to the military’s draft constitution, there was one clear answer from the majority of Thailand’s youth:
“I strongly oppose the draft constitution.”
Suchanee Rungmueanpon, 27, said that accepting the constitution would “make Thailand go backwards” and give more power to the military, while simultaneously getting rid of people’s rights. She noted: “The fact that this referendum proposes unelected senators chosen mostly by the military is totally unacceptable.”
Backing her up, Champ added:
“To make ‘real’ democracy happen in the country; we need to give people more power. This constitution only strengthens the junta government.”
Pannika also voiced her strong support for the “no” vote, adding that she had read the draft constitution and was convinced that it had been designed for one reason alone: to give as much power as possible to unelected mechanisms. She told the IPF:
“It is a weapon of mass destruction to Thailand’s democracy and a magic wand for the junta’s allies to rule the country as they want.”
However, Kanda Yaemboonruang, 29, was not as convinced as her peers. She told the IPF that she was torn over the draft constitution, noting that while she agreed with some parts of the draft, she had unanswered questions about other parts. For her, the constitution represents something else:
“We can’t ask for everything to be perfect. The constitution is a tool; the most important thing is the attitude of the people who use this tool.”
A win-win for Thailand’s junta?
An overwhelming majority of people we spoke to noted that a “yes” and a “no” outcome would both benefit the junta. Suchanee told the IPF that the referendum was a “win-win” for Thailand’s military junta, who would be given additional powers in the case of a “yes” vote, but would stay in power even longer in the case of a “no” vote. Her sentiments were backed up by Champ and Pannika, with Pannika saying:
“This referendum is both meaningless and meaningful for Thai people. No matter what the result will be, the junta still wins.”
She explained that if the draft resolution is passed, “Thailand will be under their feet”. The “yes” vote would see unelected parliamentarians given the power to elect their next prime minister, as well as MPs in parliament. Champ agreed, adding that it would “legitimise the junta’ influence over Thai politics”. However, Champ went on to explain the dangers of a “no” vote as well:
“If the constitution is rejected, the junta will have an excuse to continue its absolute rule over the country and delay the election. So it’s a win-win situation for the junta.”
Pannika summarised the people’s possible outcomes: “If the ‘yes’ camp wins, we head to election within a year. If the ‘no’ camp wins, the junta will draft the new constitution itself, which is expected to be worse than the current one.”
Thailand’s youth remain undeterred
Despite multiple media reports of the fierce crackdown on those openly expressing their views against the military junta and the draft constitution, Thailand’s youth appear to be fearless and determined to stand up for what they believe is right.
When asked whether she was afraid she would be targeted for sharing her views on the referendum, Kanda said: “Nah, I always share my views of the referendum with friends on Facebook and exchange opinions all the time.”
Pannika, who hosts a controversial news show that sometimes criticises the junta, explained that her TV station had already received more than 15 warnings from the media monitoring board controlled by the military. She said that although referendum laws prevent her from saying she is voting against the constitution on television, her and her co-host have regularly criticised the content of the draft on their show.
“I do not think we will be in trouble by doing that but if we are, that’s the risk I am willing to take.”
Meanwhile, Champ summed up what appears to be the general sentiment among the country’s youth, paving the way for a bright future for Thailand in the next generation’s hands.
“I am not afraid,” he concluded boldly. “I speak the truth. If they put me in jail because they can’t accept the truth, let them. At least my voice is heard outside the country and I hope it will help someday.”