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Ruling junta looking to outlaw dissent over draft Constitution; critical webmaster arrested, detained a day

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Thailand's military leaders are contemplating a law that will clamp down on organised opposition to a controversial draft of a new constitution.

With a referendum on the new charter scheduled for 19 August 2007, junta-appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont warned on 2 July that any organised movement to reject or de-legitimise the charter via an electoral boycott could be made illegal when a proposed Referendum Act, which has passed the first reading in the National Legislative Assembly, comes into force.

Such a law would be a serious infringement on free speech, as it would effectively stifle open debates over the draft constitution and its provisions.

If the people reject the charter, the Council for National Security (CNS), the governing authority comprised of the coup leaders, is authorised to revive, amend and impose any previous constitution.

As the prime minister was quoted in "The Nation", an English-language daily in Bangkok: "I will illustrate this simply. Between something I have in my hand in front of me and something I have in my hand behind me, which one will people choose?"

Thithinan Pongsudhirak, a leading political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, said in an analysis published by the "Bangkok Post" on 9 July that the Referendum Act is "a pro-charter law" designed "to discourage organised anti-charter movements".

Thitinan said that "those who oppose the charter concertedly will be liable for incarceration and [a] fine, but the same punitive measure will not be applicable for those in favour".

SEAPA Executive Director Roby Alampay said the proposed Referendum Act is thus "intended to black out one side of the debate over a controversial - and controversially crafted - draft constitution".

The draft constitution was ostensibly adapted from Thailand's 1997 "People's Constitution", which was scrapped by the coup leaders when they seized power from the democratically-elected government of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on 19 September 2006. But while experts from various fields had a hand in drafting it, the charter has been met with protests by anti-coup groups, supporters of Thaksin, and even monks who want a constitutional clause recognising Buddhism as the state religion. All are calling for the draft to be rejected, asserting that it came through "undemocratic means".

One vocal anti-coup and anti-charter activist, webmaster Sombat Boonngarmanong, was arrested on 6 July 2007, while giving a speech to about 150 people in Chiang Rai, a city in northern Thailand.

According to local reports, Sombat was arrested by a joint police-military force at 7:00 p.m. (local time) after he refused to stop criticising the CNS and the military-installed government through a loudspeaker at the Chiang Rai bus terminal.

Sombat, 39, is the webmaster of several anti-coup websites, including http://www.sep19.org , which was closed down on the very day it was set up.

He was held at the Mengrai Maharaj military base, where about 100 people, including Sombat's wife and daughter, later gathered to demand for his prompt release.

Released 24 hours later, Sombat said he was questioned by several senior military officers who tried to implicate him in the recent dissemination of anti-CNS leaflets in Chiang Rai.

''It is clear that there is no freedom of speech in provinces where martial law is still in effect. This is a worrying situation because freedom of expression is much needed at this time with a national referendum coming up on the new charter,'' he said.

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