Update

Thailand: The new public gathering bill poses a serious threat to Freedom of Expression

Key Details

Freedom of Expression in Thailand has been increasingly suppressed since the launch of the military coup by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) on May 22, 2014. The spotlight is now on the right to public assembly.

On May 1, 2015 the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) has passed a law that aims to regulate public protests. [1] The bill requires people who would like to stage a public protest to seek permission 24 hours in advance from the police officers supervising the area that they would like to use as the rally venue. Those who think that the protest would create a public nuisance can petition the Administrative Court or courts of justice. Public gatherings are prohibited in a 150-metre radius of the royal palaces of Their Majesties, those of the royal family members, and residences of regents or royal guests. Protests are also not allowed in the compound of the parliament, the government house and courts unless the authorities grant special permission. Moreover, a public gathering must not block the entrances or exits of government officers, airports, ports, bus or train stations, hospitals, embassies, consular offices and offices of international organizations, or disturb their operations. The purpose of the gathering must also be documented along with the length of the gathering period.

The bill also restricts the use of loudspeakers at protest sites from midnight to 6 am. Marches are not allowed between 6 pm to 6 am of the following day. Protesters are banned from covering their faces to conceal their identities.

Organizers, however, can appeal if they are not granted permission. The appeal will be considered by the supervising officers and a decision must be made within 24 hours. The decision is deemed as final.

Any violations of the restrictions will result in a jail term and a fine or both. Any protester who does not leave the site could face up to a year in jail and/or a maximum fine of 20,000 baht ($600 approximately) for protesting without police authorization. The organizers could face a maximum of 6-months jail term for any related violations, such as the use of a loudspeaker during the prohibited period or speeches deemed inciting. A jail term up to 10 years will be given to those who carry weapons, trespass, cause damage to property, relocate without permission, make threats, cause harm to others or disrupt public service and utilities. Protests which violate any of the regulations will be considered illegal and will be ended by an order of the civil or provincial courts. [2]

The bill was proposed in August 2014 by the Royal Thai Police and was approved by the junta-appointed cabinet in late November. The first draft was unanimously approved by the NLA in 182-0 vote on February 26, 2015. The law will go into effect as soon as it is published in the Royal Gazette.

This law constitutes a serious violation of freedom of assembly and association guaranteed in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which reads “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Thailand ratified on October 29, 1996, also guarantees the freedom of assembly and association in its Article 21 and 22.

The country’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) opposes the bill and submitted its concerns to the NLA on March 9, 2015 as follows; [3]

  • The stipulation that an assembly must not obstruct entrances and exits or disrupt the services and functions of state agencies, airports, harbours, railway stations, transportation stations, hospitals, schools, places of religion, embassies and international organizations will virtually bar any assembly from taking place in the first place.
  • The bill’s title should be changed from ‘Public Assembly’ to ‘Promotion and Protection of Rights to Public Assembly’ to better reflect the principles and spirit of the bill.
  • The rule that bars any march or mobile rally between 6 pm and 6 am is inappropriate.
  • The rule which stipulates that rally organizers must notify the authorities of the planned rally at least 24 hours before the rally commences is not in accordance with the principles of the promotion and protection of the right to public assembly.
  • The authorities should be entitled to call off a rally only when there are sufficient grounds, such as when the rally clearly affects national security or public safety, or seriously affects rights of others. Petty technical failures, such as failing to notify or failing to ask for permission to extend the rally period should not be justification for a ban.
  • The authorities should not be immune from legal responsibility when performing their duties stipulated by the bill.

Even though many have expressed their opinions that the bill should be dropped, the NCPO insists that the new law will be enforced. The NCPO’s spokesperson, Col Winthai Suwaree said that the NCPO  created the Centre for Reconciliation and Reform (CRR) as a public forum for all to have their opinions heard regarding the constitution and the proposed reforms. He added that the NCPO was not barring anyone from expressing their opinions otherwise it would not have the CRR as a place for citizens to voice their concerns. [4]

 

Authors

Sutawan Chanprasert

Legal Researcher

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