Reuters International

People take a look at Thailand Election Commission's voting machines during an event to kick off the distribution of five million copies of a controversial military-written draft constitution, ahead of the August 7 referendum in Bangkok, Thailand, May 25, 2016. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

(reuters_tickers)

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Less than three weeks before a contentious constitutional referendum, Thailand's military government is scrambling to drum up support, broadcasting songs and television programmes in a vigorous public relations campaign.

The military, which took power from an elected government in May 2014, says its draft constitution will ensure stability in a country rocked by political turmoil and military takeovers for more than a decade.

But critics, including major political parties, say the charter would give the military too much power over elected governments, and would not resolve fundamental differences between populist political forces and the military-dominated establishment.

"Everyone has the same rights" and "Come together to the referendum ... Thai folks have fun", run the lyrics of a patriotic ballad the government released this month.

It is one of several songs about the Aug. 7 vote, including one sanctioned by the Election Commission, aired on public broadcasters while members of a junta-appointed panel tour the country to highlight the merits of a constitution they helped draft.

"This is the last phase before the referendum, so we want to inform people through television in the mornings and evenings," government spokesman Major General Sansern Kaewkamnerd told Reuters.

The military government has promised to hold an election next year whether the draft constitution is approved or not, but its rejection would inevitably raise questions about the government's road map.

The government has said if the draft is rejected, it would hold an election under one of 19 previous constitutions.

Southeast Asia's second-largest economy has struggled to expand since the army seized power, with exports and domestic demand both weak.

SPACE FOR DEBATE

The government has clamped down on dissent since it took over and has been particularly intent on preventing criticism of the draft charter, introducing a law that sets a 10-year jail term for campaigning ahead of the referendum.

Opponents of the draft, from student and civil society groups to political parties, have called for open debate on the constitution, and some have called for the referendum to be postponed.

"We want the government to open a space for the public to express their thoughts," said lecturer and analyst Gothom Arya, speaking on behalf of one group, the Platform of Concerned Citizens.

"Those for and against the draft should be able to air their views," he told Reuters.

Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwan said on Thursday he had ordered provincial governors to allow forums for debate, while adding that the referendum would not be postponed.

For more than a decade, Thailand has been divided between rival camps, one led by former populist premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 coup and later went into self-exile.

Ranged against him is the royalist and military establishment, which accuses Thaksin of poisoning politics with nepotism and corruption, charges he denies.

There are about 50 million eligible voters. The Election Commission has said it expects an 80 percent turnout.

(Additional reporting Aukkarapon Niyomyat and Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Robert Birsel)

reuters_tickers

 Reuters International