• Prayuth says any dissent could endanger constitution vote
  • Rights groups slam junta's restrictions, detention of critics

Thai junta leader Prayuth Chan-Ocha said two recent protests against his rule were the work of “foreign lobbyists” and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and could endanger an upcoming constitutional referendum.

Small groups of protesters have defied the junta’s ban on demonstrations to gather during evening rush hour in Bangkok and flash an outlawed three-fingered salute that has become a symbol of opposition to military rule. A handful of protesters were detained at the events and later released.

“Who supports them; who plans for this?” Prayuth said to reporters Thursday in Bangkok. “First it’s foreign lobbyists; it’s Thaksin.”

Prayuth provided no evidence for his claims, though he did say officials were tracking the “money trail” behind the protesters. Demonstrations have been banned since Prayuth staged a coup against a Thaksin-allied government in May 2014. Prayuth, the army chief at the time, has said he needed to intervene to end dueling street protests that he says could have sparked a civil war.

“The country will be in chaos,” Prayuth said Thursday after the peaceful demonstrations the previous two days. “You can do what you want, but you have to accept what may happen to Thailand in the future. If you continue to do this, will it mess up the referendum and election?”

Democracy Delayed

The junta has repeatedly pushed back the date for possible elections, which Prayuth has said can only be held once there is no dissent and a new constitution is in place. A constitution written by a committee hand-picked by the junta will go to a referendum on Aug. 7, though both of Thailand’s two major political parties have said it is undemocratic.

The junta has warned that anyone campaigning for the constitution to be rejected risks up to 10 years in prison. It is currently detaining a politician from Thaksin’s party who criticized the draft.

“The Thai junta, by gagging a prominent critic, has heightened the climate of fear ahead of the constitutional referendum,” Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Thursday in a statement. “If people can’t debate a proposed constitution, then nothing is safe for public discussion.”

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