80% tipped to vote in Isaan as ‘many want closure’; people afraid to discuss charter; lack of knowledge on draft common in N/east
Voter turnout in the Northeast could reach the 80-per-cent goal in the referendum in two weeks and favour approval of the draft charter despite a climate of fear and a lack of understanding about the draft, a source close to Election Commission (EC) offices in Isaan provinces has said.
Ahead of the August 7 referendum, the Isaan region is still relatively quiet, the source said. There had little public discussion and political commentary, he said, because people fear meetings could breach the junta’s ban on political gatherings.
However, Isaan people will cast their ballots because they want the referendum to “finish” the issue so the next general election can be held, Kongchai Chaikung, village head of Ban Nong Hu Ling in Udon Thani province and red-shirt supporter, said.
“They are looking forward to exercising their electoral rights in the next election and have their own representatives, rather than live under the coup,” Kongchai said. He said people had suffered from record low prices for farm products since the coup and hoped that their representatives and the next elected government can solve the economic slowdown.
People in Isaan believe that if the draft passes the referendum, the next election will be held by 2017 according to the junta’s road map, he added.
But the junta could prolong its tenure citing a need to edit or write a new draft without a fixed timetable, he said.
On the other hand, the junta has also intensified security measures, especially in Isaan, which is known to be a red-shirt stronghold, to ensure the referendum proceeds smoothly, a source close to the junta said.
In Isaan, the junta has tried to suppress red-shirt community leaders who canvassed for Pheu Thai Party during recent elections, the source added. Tactics include frequent summons or reporting to security
“I used to be summoned monthly to report to security authorities in 2014 when the coup took place,” village head Kongchai said. “They asked me and other red-shirt community leaders to stop political activities. We have no power and have to obey.”
He said that since then he has coordinated with state administrators and district chiefs, passing their policies on to villagers. Kongchai has even become a so-called Kru Kor, or “Teacher C”, volunteer trained by district officials to knock on doors and explain the charter draft content in person.
The military and concerned security agencies are also visiting villages for different reasons including “support missions” related to the referendum, said Watcharin Sutawadee, an official in Muang Udon Thani district.
Thongmuan Pithaknok, a villager in Nakhon Ratchasima, said she and several of her neighbours believe the military will harm them if they do not vote in the referendum.
Despite a large turnout, the quality of voting in the referendum will be poor because voters do not understand the content of the draft, said Preecha Uitragool, Open Forum for Democracy Foundation coordinator for the Isaan region.
“Booklets and a full version of the draft are not available in some areas. [There are] no inclusive debates and no political talks. How will people make the right decision?” Preecha said.
Villagers had not received booklets or a full version of the draft as of three weeks prior to the referendum, said Krisada Monthathip, the head of Ban Sommai village in Udon Thani.
According to Nakhon Ratchasima provincial EC office director Thitiphol Todsarod, state agencies have recently made a great effort to encourage Isaan voters to cast ballots as the region has the largest number of eligible voters. He said in big provinces such as Nakhon Ratchasima and Buri Ram, referendum banners bedeck downtown areas while on the outskirts of remote provinces, monks, village chiefs and the state’s local networks urge people to vote in face-to-face discussions.
Provincial EC director Thitiphol said not all households had received the full draft because only 1.2 million copies had been printed. But he said all families would receive booklets spelling out the main ideas of the draft. Some 17 million copies of the summary booklets have been printed.
With more than Bt200 million budgeted for referendum PR activities, provincial EC offices will initiate a number of projects in collaboration with a massive state administration and security agency effort to get at least an 80-per-cent turnout nationwide, a source close to the EC said. In the 2007 referendum, 57 per cent of voters cast their ballots.