Thais to deploy 200,000 police for referendum but trouble seen unlikely

Soldiers carry Thailand's national flag before raising it at The Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, August 2, 2016. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai authorities will deploy about 200,000 police for a referendum on a contentious new constitution on Sunday but violence is seen as unlikely, police and the government said on Wednesday, despite widespread opposition to the charter. In the vote, the country will decided on whether to accept the military's constitution in the biggest test of public opinion since the generals seized power in May 2014, with prospects for an election next year possibly in the balance. Authorities have arrested and detained dozens of activists and politicians in the run-up to the referendum, some for trying to hand out leaflets urging people to vote 'no'. The military said the constitution will usher in stable, clean politics and heal more than a decade of bitter political division. Critics say the charter is designed to cement the military's role in civilian politics and constrain the populist political forces that have arisen over the past 15 years to challenge the military and royalist establishment. "From intelligence received, nothing points to any likelihood of violence on referendum day," Colonel Peerawat Saengthong, a spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command, a military unit dealing with national security, told reporters. Critics of the proposed constitution have held small, symbolic protests against it but they have been muted, largely because of a law that carries a 10-year jail term for campaigning in connection with the referendum. Politicians from across the political divide, including former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whose government was ousted in 2014, and a top rival, another former premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva, have criticized the constitution as undemocratic. A vote for it would boost the government's legitimacy while a vote against would raise questions about a promised general election next year, even though the government has said polls will go ahead no matter what. Opposition groups, including the anti-government United Front For Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the "red shirt" group, have said they will not disrupt the vote. "We have no activities planned but will monitor the election carefully at home," said Thanawut Wichaidit, a UDD spokesman. The junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order, has banned criticism of the constitution and authorities have detained and charged dozens of people who have spoken against it, including politicians and student activists. About 200,000 police will be deployed at polling stations around the country, police said. "Overall, everything is peaceful," said Colonel Winthai Suvaree, a junta spokesman. "If anything illegal happens, authorities are ready for action." (Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Robert Birsel)