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Thailand: Sunday's referendum takes place in 'chilling climate of fear'

Thailand’s referendum on a draft constitution takes place this Sunday against a backdrop of pervasive human rights violations that have created a chilling climate, Amnesty International said today.

In the run-up to the referendum, the authorities arbitrarily arrested scores of people, cancelled or disrupted peaceful assemblies and took a television station off the air.

Josef Benedict, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for South East Asia and the Pacific, said:

“Gen. Prayut’s actions have spoken louder than his words. Instead of fulfilling his commitment to respect people’s rights and allow them to speak freely, the authorities have now created a chilling climate of fear.

“If people cannot speak their minds freely or take part in political activities without fear, how can they meaningfully engage in this referendum?

“What we are seeing are not temporary measures that create peace and order as the authorities have argued, but a constant criminalisation of peaceful dissent designed to silence views that the authorities do not like.”

In a recent illustrative case, last week 11 people were taken into military custody after being accused of distributing letters criticising the draft constitution. They have since been handed over to the police and informed that they will be tried in a military court for sedition, criminal association and violating Thailand’s referendum act.

Since announcing its three-part “road map” following the May 2014 coup, the Thai authorities have put in place a series of undue restrictions that are contrary to the country’s obligations under international human rights law.

Over the past week, at least three university events organised to discuss the referendum were cancelled under apparent pressure from the authorities. A university professor was also told by the Election Commission to stop expressing his views on the draft constitution.

These cancellations follow a pattern of government obstruction of public events deemed critical of the draft constitution and the referendum process.

While the Prime Minister has claimed that the authorities do not “intend to infringe upon anyone’s rights”, he and others have contradicted this encouraging sentiment.

On 19 April, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O- Cha said of critics of the draft constitution:

“They have no rights to say that they disagree…I don’t allow anyone to debate or hold a press conference about the draft constitution. Yet they still disobey my orders. They will be arrested and jailed for 10 years.”

A day earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan was reported as saying:

“You can dislike [the draft constitution] but don’t express it [to the public] and keep it inside your head. Those wearing ‘Vote No’ or ‘Vote Yes’ T-shirts will have them taken off.”

Amnesty calls on the Royal Thai Government to respect and protect human rights by creating an environment in which individuals and groups can freely and confidently share ideas and express their opinions on the upcoming referendum and any subsequent stage in its plans for political transition.

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