Thai military government says no campaigning ahead of charter vote

Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan gestures during an interview with Reuters at the Defence Ministry in Bangkok, Thailand, February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom (Reuters)

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Campaigns will not be allowed in Thailand in the run-up to an August referendum on a new constitution that the military hopes will usher in stable politics but which critics say will stifle democracy, a senior government official said on Tuesday. The military, which seized power in a 2014 coup saying it had to end violent anti-government protests, has overseen the drafting of the constitution and promised to hold an election by the middle of next year. But critics of the draft, including major political parties, say it will enshrine the military's influence and is unlikely to resolve years of political strife. The military government has warned critics not to attempt to sway the vote. "Don't campaign and don't influence the referendum. Let people be free to think," Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan told reporters. "If you disagree then just tick that box." The military has mounted its own campaign to get people to vote in the Aug. 7 referendum, though it says its effort is not aimed at getting people to vote in favor of the draft. As part of that campaign, students from the military's territorial defense program are visiting public places, including markets and shopping malls, to persuade people to vote. Since taking power, the military has banned political activity but that has not stopped parties from commenting on issues, including the draft constitution. The Puea Thai Party of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was ousted in the 2014 coup, has told its supporters to reject the charter. Supporters of the populist party backed by many of Thailand's rural poor, say the new constitution is a bid by the military-dominated establishment to limit its influence. Even its rival, the pro-establishment Democrat Party, has said the draft is undemocratic, though it has stopped short of telling its supporters how to vote. (Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat; Additional reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel)