Tens of thousands march in Thai referendum push

Tens of thousands of people Monday joined a government-organised march through central Bangkok to encourage people to vote in a key constitutional referendum this weekend.

 Tens of thousands march in Thai referendum push
Tens of thousands of people Monday joined a government-organised march through central Bangkok to encourage people to vote in a key constitutional referendum this weekend.

The march is the authorities' latest effort to stir public interest in the referendum, which the junta that seized power in a coup last September says will clear the way for general elections by the end of this year.

Army-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont led the crowd of government officials, high school students and others from a plaza near the Grand Palace to the Democracy Monument.

Many wore yellow shirts in honour of Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, as they waved the national flag. Others wore green, the colour used by promoters of the army-backed constitution going before voters Sunday.

"I would like people to come out to vote. Everyone has the right to decide which way they will vote," Surayud told the crowd.

"Coming out to vote is a way of using your rights. Coming out to vote is a way to help each other in deciding the nation's future," he added.

The entire event lasted about two hours, with marchers dispersing shortly after the speech.

Pro-democracy advocates and allies of Thaksin Shinawatra, the premier who was ousted by the military, fiercely oppose the constitution.

They argue the new basic law would weaken elected officials while giving more power to bureaucrats, including the military. But they have struggled to get their message out, with campaigning tilted in the government's favour.

A new law threatens 10 years in prison for anyone who "misrepresents" the charter, while martial law imposed after the coup remains in effect across half of Thailand.

Martial law makes campaigning difficult by banning large assemblies, and Surayud told reporters after the rally that the government has no plans to lift it.

"Maintaining martial law in those provinces does not affect their right to vote," he said.

Many of the provinces affected are in rural areas that were bastions of support for Thaksin, who has been in exile since the military takeover.

The proposed charter also received an unexpected boost Monday when a major group of Buddhist activists announced they had dropped their opposition.

The Buddhist Network of Thailand had protested against the constitution for failing to enshrine their faith as the state religion.

But the group's leader, Thongchai Kua-sakul, said they would no longer oppose the charter after Thailand's Queen Sirikit gave a speech Sunday calling for the continued separation of religion and state.

"We will stop the movement to add Buddhism as the national religion," Thongchai told AFP.

All of Thailand's 700,000 security officers have been ordered to join a get-out-the-vote campaign.

The government has also declared a three-day weekend and convinced bus and train operators to cut fares in two so millions of migrant workers can return to their hometowns to cast ballots.

AFP
Last Mod: 13 Ağustos 2007, 11:19
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