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Thailand: Freedom of Expression One Year after the Coup

On May 22, 2014 a group of military officers under the name, “National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)” deposed the interim government of Yingluck Shinnawatra. The reasons were because there had been continuing violence which caused lives of people and damages to properties. The NCPO viewed that it was necessary to launch the coup d’état in order to stop the turmoil.

The NCPO’s mission statement is as followings;

  • To end the conflict among the Thai people, to drive the economy forward and to restore confidence under the executive, legislative and judicial frameworks by exercising the royal prerogatives of the King through such frameworks in the same tradition in which a regular government has exercised such powers, with the institution of the monarchy remaining above all conflicts.
  • Build trust and confidence amongst foreign nations and international organizations in the international arena on the basis of protecting national interests.
  • Build confidence for foreign investment and other foreign business dealings in Thailand.
  • Create stability in all dimensions – political, economic, social and cultural – to transition the democratic system in Thailand, with the King as Head of State, towards universally accepted standards, with trust from all sides.
  • Coordinate viewpoints and seek common ground among people with different opinions, with the national interest foremost in mind.
  • Elevate education levels and build standards of living in accordance with sufficiency economy approached under a sustainable democratic system of governance with the King as Head of State.

364 days after the coup d’état was successfully launched, there had been at least 751 individuals summoned by the NCPO to report themselves. The summoning methods are various. Some were officially summoned in the NCPO’s official announcements. The unofficial methods include waiting in front of the houses or calling them to invite for a meal or coffee. [1]

According to the Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), 278 out of 751 individuals are those who had involved with Pheu Thai Party or the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) which is also known as “red shirts”. They are a group that had been summoned by the junta the most. 41 out of 751 were those who involve with Democrat Party, People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), and Student and People Network for Thailand Reform (SNT) and other 176 individuals were academics, activists, students, writers, and media personnel. The majority of them have been forced to sign not to make any political movement or fleeing the country.

At least 22 individuals were arrested after being summoned and 6 of them were charged of lèse-majesté (the Article 112 of the Criminal Code). A number of lèse-majesté cases have been skyrocketing since the NCPO took over because they have created a complete system to handle this type of cases specifically. The junta issued the order no. 37/2014 to make those who face lèse-majesté to have their cases be tried by a military court which operates under the Ministry of Defense. The court also usually doubles the length of a sentence compared to when the case is tried by the civilian courts. The decision whether to prosecute or not also depends on a military prosecutor. Furthermore, lèse-majesté is considered as a serious offense in Thailand which affects national security. The chance of a defendant to win the case is almost none. The majority of them had chosen to plead guilty instead of defending themselves as to lessen the period of imprisonment as the guilty plea would halve the length of it. As of May 22, 2015 at least 46 individuals had been charged of lèse-majesté.  Many of them have mental illness.

Freedom of association had also been suppressed. The NCPO issued an announcement No. 7/2014 which prohibited more than 5 individuals to have a political meeting. The punishment was an imprisonment of one year maximum or a maximum of 20,000 baht fine or both. From May – June 2014, there had been many anti-junta activities which resulted in at least 63 individuals being arrested. At least 24 of them had been charged for violating the junta’s order. They were all granted suspension for their sentences.

Apart from that, public activities that are not about anti-junta gatherings such as stage play, academic talk, or movie had also been suppressed. In a period of one year, at least 71 times that this kind of activities had been blocked or intervened. The topic that had been a target usually relates to history and politics. The public forum about the fall of dictators in foreign countries which was hosted by the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy (LLTD) was stopped in the middle of the event. The event of the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) about the justice in Thailand was also cancelled. Other forms of intervention included sending military officers to the events and recorded them with a video camera. In the event about the rights and liberty of people under the draft cyber security act, a military officer even asked to be one of the speakers. Those that were allowed to be held must not criticize the junta, show any anti-junta signs, and must invite authorities to participate in the event.

On the one year anniversary of the coup d’état (May 22, 2015), groups of university students were arrested and detained after peaceful protests. Seven student activists from “Daodin Group” in Khon Kaen province of Thailand were arrested by police officers after they held a banner read “anti-coup” in front of the Victory Monument in Khon Kaen.

In the evening of the same date, students and activists gathered in front of the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center (BACC) for the event called “Friday 22, Should We Celebrate?” led by Thai Student Center for Democracy (TSCD).  The activity was expected to be a silent protest in which the participants were expected to wear white shirts, look at the time tellers such as watches and mobile phones, and hold banners without using hate speech.

The activity was prevented by over 100 police officers who gathered in front of the BACC and blocked the area. 37 students and activists were arrested and taken to the nearby Pathumwan Police Station. Those who resisted the arrested were dragged to the ground. Some individuals reported to be physically attacked by the authorities. [2] Fortunately, they were released later without being charged but were forced not to make any political movement with their ID cards being copied. [3]

The 7 students of Daodin Group were also released in the same morning. They have been charged for violating the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO)’s order no. 3/2015  that its Article 12 prohibits political expression and assembly of more than five people. The students were released on bail with the surety amount of 7,500 baht each (52,500 baht altogether). The students decided to go on civil disobedience when the police officers summoned them on June 8, 2015 to acknowledge the charge. The case would be sent to military prosecutors and would be tried at the military court at military Circle 23, Patcharin Army Base located in Khon Kaen. The penalty is a six-month jail term and/or a fine not exceeding 10,000 baht.

Article 44 of the 2014 Interim Constitution has become the junta’s new mechanism to handle those who are against them. Even though martial law was lifted in April 2015, the human rights situation has not been changed. Article 44 gives the NCPO nearly an absolute power and the order no.3/2015 was issued under power granted from the article.

The article stipulates “In the case where the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order is of opinion that it is necessary for the benefit of reform in any field and to strengthen public unity and harmony, or for the prevention, disruption or suppression of any act which under mines public peace and order or national security, the Monarchy, national economics or administration of State affairs, where that act emerges inside or outside the Kingdom, the Head of the National Council for Peace and Order shall have the powers to make any order to disrupt or suppress regardless of the legislative, executive or judicial force of that order. In this case, that order, act or any performance in accordance with that order is deemed to be legal, constitutional and conclusive, and it shall be reported to the National Legislative Assembly and the Prime Minister without delay.”

According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), it analyzes how human rights have been violated during the period of one year as followings;

  1. Freedom of expression under the lack of national security purported by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – It was found that at least 751 individuals have been summoned including at least five who have also been indicted on violation of Article 112 (lèse-majesté) of the Thai Criminal Code. As to the right to freedom of assembly, at least 71 public events including public discussions and others have been subjected to intervention by the military. It was also quite alarming that a number of individuals have been held in custody arbitrarily and their personal information has been recorded by the authorities. This had resulted in a climate of fear and persecution. Meanwhile, 67 individuals have been indicted on violations of Article 112 and insofar, the Military Court has sentenced some of them to ten years per count; this is a penalty rate which is much higher than those previously handed down by civilian courts. Most of the convicts were indicted on offences stemming from their posting or sharing posts in social media including Facebook.
  2. The justice system in camouflage, Martial Law and trial against civilians in the Military Court – At least 18 civilians have complained to TLHR about being subjected to torture in custody. 172 individuals have so far been tried by the Military Court. TLHR is concerned about the lack of impartiality of the military judges and the single-tiered system of the court as well as its unique adjudication procedure. Despite the lifting of Martial Law, by virtue of the Head of the NCPO Order No. 3/2015, military officials have the power as an inquiry official. a power which is in breach of the ruler of law.
  3. Impunity by virtue of Section 44 – After the enforcement of the 2014 Interim Constitution, the Head of NCPO has invoked its Section 44 to decree at least 18 orders including amendment of existing laws, the management of personnel and maintenance of peace. All in all, the exercise of the legal provision aims to reinforce the absolute power of the military in terms of the prevention, suppression, arrest and investigation of all criminal offences. Section 44 basically bestows sweeping power on the Head of NCPO without any liability, legislatively, administratively and judicially. They cannot be held liable by anyone. It has simply perpetuated the culture of impunity. In addition, a constitutional provision has been enforced to exonerate them from all possible culpability. This will certainly deepen the roots of the culture of impunity in Thailand.
  4. The “encroached” resources – It was found that NCPO Order No. 64/2014 and the Forestry Master Plan on reforestation are aimed at suppressing and evicting people from their land causing grave impacts on the poor and landless while favoring the business of investors. All measures have been made without consultation with local people. Stringent suppression and sweeping powers have been waged without consideration of the contexts, cultures and traditions of local communities. The Royal Thai Police has declared the arrest of 1,622 suspects, while their methods of arrest and prosecution have terrified local people all over. For example, the officials would simply raid and cut down the crops of the villages and dismantle the houses of local people. The court was simply used as a pretext to justify the use of sheer and harsh treatment against people breaking their bargaining power while increasing the leverage of the investors.
  5. The justice that has never been there, intervention of inquiries, and prosecution to bring to justice those involved with the crackdown in April – May 2010 – After the coup, TLHR was informed by injured persons from the crackdowns in 2010 that they had received letters from the Department of Special Investigation asking for interviews with them about the events in 2010 that they had received letters from the Department of Special Investigation asking for interviews with them about the events in 2010. At the same time, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha and the official in charge of the military forces during the events in 2010 has appointed a new inquiry committee to investigate the event. Such information has caused concerns as to how to investigation will be conducted impartially.

The TLHR used the term “A Justice System in Camouflage” to criticize the NCPO that seemed to act as a neutral party  but actually is more like a party in dispute since it has involved with suppressing demonstrations, carrying out forced evictions, forcing people to undergo attitude adjustment, and using the Military Court to try civilians. They tried to host a public forum regarding the issue at the Foreign Correspondent Club of Thailand (FCCT), but the event was forced to cancel on June 4, 2015.

One year has passed, it can be concluded that the country is still far behind from being democratic and having respect over human rights as the self-established government does not understand anything about human rights and freedom of expression. Many law and regulations have also been reviewed which seem to pose a threat to human rights of people in the future. Everything that is considered as anti-NCPO is viewed to be capable of incite unrest.

Still no hope for freedom of expression in this country.

Authors

Sutawan Chanprasert

Independent Human Rights Researcher

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