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The stakes move up as Thai referendum nears

Volunteers distribute publicity handouts for Thailand's constitutional referendum, to be held on Aug. 7. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

ROI ET, Thailand A photograph of a woman being interrogated by 11 men -- one of them in military fatigues -- is being relayed via smartphones in the monsoon-swept northeast of Thailand. The picture has made Kwenjai Trakoolsri, the woman in the picture, a local star.

The 48-year-old recalls the mid-June encounter with a hint of defiance to visitors who drop by her house, located down an isolated road that passes farmers preparing their fields for a new paddy crop. "They questioned me for over an hour," she said of the men, some from the police, and some from military intelligence agencies operating in Roi Et, one of Thailand's 20 northeastern provinces.

She is not the only victim of repeated house calls by military operatives as Thailand's ruling junta tightens its grip ahead of an Aug. 7 referendum on a draft constitution. The regime's operatives summoned 19 people from nearby Udon Thani province in mid-July for a dressing-down, bringing to nearly 100 the number of political activists in seven provinces who have been summoned or even charged, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, a monitoring organization. Their "crime" was implementing plans by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the country's formidable grassroots political movement, to establish referendum monitoring centers nationwide.

However, the "Red Shirts," as UDD supporters are known, have been emboldened by such setbacks, ending a political silence that had echoed through this rural constituency since the military seized power in May 2014. Former parliamentarians of the Pheu Thai Party, which governed until the putsch and depended on the Red Shirts for electoral triumphs, are doing likewise.

Faced with a ban on political gatherings, ex-parliamentarians are resurrecting their networks through ingenious means, showing up at funerals, temple ceremonies, weddings and local fairs to engage with their voters. "It is like bird talk or lip-to-lip at all social events," said Cherdchai Tantisiri, a heart surgeon and a leader of Pheu Thai's northeastern wing.

Former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who led Pheu Thai to its last election victory in 2011, has adroitly identified opportunities for her party and its base to mount a political comeback in the referendum campaign. Since late May, she has been making forays to the north and northeast, both Pheu Thai strongholds, to visit tourist attractions recommended by her Facebook followers.

The photogenic Yingluck, whose presence draws emotional crowds, has more than 5.4 million Facebook followers, more than any other politician in the country. Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, Pheu Thai's main parliamentary opponent, has 2.3 million. Lagging behind both is Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former army chief who heads the military government. He had around 500,000 Facebook followers.

These moves to reclaim the political ground after a two-year retreat are raising the stakes in the referendum, in which the country's 50 million-plus registered voters will be asked to approve its 20th constitution, crafted by a military-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee. The new constitution aims to restructure the governing order by giving more powers to unelected political institutions than to a future elected legislature.

POPULARITY CHECK According to Pheu Thai insiders, the signal to mount the comeback came from Yingluck's elder brother, the fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a deeply polarizing figure who was ousted in a previous military coup in 2006 and is now living in exile in Dubai. But the message is nuanced: Pheu Thai wants people to see the vote as a popularity check, an opportunity to send a message to the military that people still support the party, and an occasion to test the continuing effectiveness of its machine.

"We cannot succeed in street protests, because we don't have the army behind us -- so elections, referendums are it," a confidante of Yingluck told the Nikkei Asian Review. History affirms this, since parties formed by Thaksin have won all general elections over the last 15 years.

Pheu Thai is opposed to the draft charter and hopes for a "no" vote. With political meetings banned, cyberspace has become a platform to reach voters. Already, 17 Pheu Thai leaders have posted personal messages against the charter on their respective Facebook pages, tiptoeing around the ban. And in some quarters of the northeast, the "no" campaign is spreading. But there is a twist to the way the campaign is portraying the referendum -- presenting it as a vote for or against Prayuth as premier, rather than as a mechanism to facilitate the draft constitution and its 105 pages of political prescriptions. "If you want General Prayuth to continue as prime minister, vote 'yes,' but if you do not want that, then vote 'no,'" goes the simple message, which appears to have struck a chord with the public.

The National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta is officially known, is playing its own tune. Besides pouring scorn on elected politicians, the regime is seeking a "yes" vote by pulling at another one of the electorate's heartstrings. It is promoting the new constitution as a way to provide peace and stability in a deeply divided country that has witnessed many street clashes over the past decade, resulting in scores of deaths. Some urban voters welcome this measure to break the current political impasse.

Even supposedly independent bodies, such as the Election Commission, are closing ranks behind the regime. "We just went through hard times and conflicts, and the government doesn't want the country to go back, with people going to political protests," said Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, an outspoken member of the commission.

Analysts are worried about a low turnout in a country that saw 75% of voters participate in the last general election in 2011. They cite the first referendum to approve a previous charter, in 2007, when under relatively free conditions the "yes" vote was 14.3 million and the "no" vote 10.2 million, but 42% of the 44.2 million eligible voters abstained.

A repeat of the 2007 outcome is a tall order for the junta because of mixed messages about the 20th constitution coming from the traditionally pro-military Democrat Party, whose strongholds in Bangkok and the central and southern provinces were pivotal for the previous junta's victory. Some party insiders are cautioning the regime against taking the party's vote for granted, even in the capital. "In recent polls, we have won with thin margins," said one Democrat member.

This is a timely warning for the generals, who need a victory to provide a measure of political legitimacy. "The divisions in the country are very intense, and the NCPO is aware of it, so it is hoping to win by its message that everything will be OK if people accept this constitution," said Kan Yuenyong, executive director of Siam Intelligence Unit, a think tank. A "no" vote would not undermine the military government, he said, because "the junta will say it is not our problem but the problem of the CDC." In that case, the status quo would continue, with Prayuth and the NCPO remaining in power.

Prayuth has already hinted at such a likelihood about the implications of a "no" vote. But for many disillusioned people, such an outcome would script an epitaph for Thai politics as a broken system where only guns matter.

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