Thais went to the polls Sunday to vote on a new constitution proposed by the ruling junta, in a first electoral test for the generals who led last September's bloodless coup.
Some 45 million eligible voters are being asked to approve or reject the charter, which the military says will pave the way for elections that would restore democracy by December.
For Thais, who have lived through more than a year of turmoil surrounding the ouster of billionaire premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the referendum was their first chance to vote since the military takeover.
But the charter also outlines amnesty for the generals who toppled Thaksin, and political analysts say the result will be a verdict on them as much as it is on the document itself.
"The referendum is about the credibility of coup makers," said political analyst Ukrist Pathmanand of Chulalongkorn University.
As polling stations opened across the country with the playing of the national anthem, Suphak Saphakkul, a 67-year-old pharmacy owner in Bangkok, was among the first to vote.
"I will vote for it because there are a lot of benefits and rights for the majority of citizens," Suphak said.
The junta has promised to hold general elections in December and hand power to an elected, civilian government.
But even if elections are held, critics say that the new charter will return control of government to traditional power centres in the military, the bureaucracy and the royal palace.
All three institutions have played key roles in most of Thailand's turbulent political history, which has seen 24 prime ministers and 18 coups over the last 75 years.
General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the leader of the junta which took over power while Thaksin was on a visit to the United Nations, went on television early Sunday to urge all Thais to vote.
"Today is an important and historic day," he said. Results from the referendum were expected later Sunday.
Opponents, including Thaksin supporters and democracy advocates, have been campaigning against the charter, warning it will only empower the military at the expense of elected leaders.
They say the new constitution rolls back reforms included in the previous 1997 charter, and could set the stage for fragile coalition governments that would fall under the military's sway.
It also gives an amnesty to the military over last year's coup, when the generals tossed out the 1997 constitution, which had been widely hailed as the most democratic the kingdom had ever known.
Army-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has toured the country, including a visit last week to Thaksin's northern stronghold of Chiang Mai, to urge people to vote in favour of the referendum.
Campaigning has been tilted heavily in the direction of the government, with half the country still under martial law and a new law threatening prison for anyone convicted of obstructing the referendum.
Polls indicate that voters will approve the charter but even if it fails, the junta can impose one of Thailand's 17 previous constitutions and amend it as they please.
Last Mod: 19 Ağustos 2007, 14:56