Intimidation, prosecution and detention: closing spaces for dissent in Thailand

Association

The prosecution of academics following a conference in Chiang Mai has prompted an outcry from domestic and international civil society groups. In July, organiser Dr Chayan Vaddhanaphuti, along with Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai, and Thiramon Bua-ngam, were summoned to the authorities after the 13th International Conference on Thai Studies was held from 15th to 18th July 2017. Authorities allege that the conference violated the military regime’s ban on political gatherings, claiming that issues deemed critical of the ruling military junta were discussed during the conference. 

Thai security forces had attended the conference and monitored outspoken participants. In protest against the presence of Thai security forces, students Pakawadee Veerapatpong, Chaipong Samnieng, Nontawat Machai, and Thiramon Bua-ngam held signs at the event, reading: 

"An academic forum is not a military barracks”

While none of the academics have been kept in custody, they now face potential prosecution. The authorities' interference and intimidation are emblematic of the erosion of civil liberties in Thailand since the military regime took power in 2014. If convicted, the academics face up to a year in prison.

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Thailand can face disproportionately higher risks of harassment, attacks or violence for simply carrying out their work. In a recent statement, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia expressed concerns over the increasingly high numbers of female activists being arrested in Thailand. In a statement, the representative for the UN said female activists must be allowed to campaign: 

“...without fear or threat of lawsuits, harassment, violence or intimidation..The crucial work of women human rights defenders in Thailand should be enabled and protected, not prevented”. 

The comments come after the judicial harassment of the Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group (as described under Peaceful Assembly) as well as the arrest of prominent WHRD, Supap Kamlae. As the wife of another prominent land rights activist, Den Kamlae who was disappeared in April 2016, Kamlae had been at the forefront of a campaign to ensure an investigation into her husband's disappearance. Kamlae was jailed under spurious allegations of trespassing in late July 2017. The issue of enforced disappearances remains a worrying threat for dissidents and critics of the government in Thailand; reports by international bodies note that at least 82 people have been abducted and disappeared since 1980. 

Peaceful Assembly

On 25th July 2017, seven female activists were charged in Loei province after protesting against proposals to expand a gold mine in a local forest. Wiron Rujichaiwat, Lamplern Ruangrit, Mon Khunna, Pornthip Hongchai, Ranong Kongsaen, Bunraeng Srithong and Suphat Khunna, all members of the local Khon Rak Ban Kerd Group (People Who Love Their Home), were arrested after organising a sit-in outside local administrative offices in November 2016. As members of a prominent environmental and land rights organisation, the group has previously suffered judicial harassment from the authorities, and from the company operating the mine, Tungkum. Co Ltd. The seven activists each face up to five years in prison and a 100,000 THB (2,586 EUR) fine for the peaceful sit-in. While the activists were later released on bail, all sides were summoned to Loei Provincial Court on 11th August 2017 for a preliminary hearing. No further information on the case was available at time of writing.

Expression

On 19th September 2017, regional organisation Fortify Rights joined 86 other civil society organisations in calling for the decriminalisation of defamation and the protection of 14 migrant workers. In a case brought by Thammakaset, a Thai owned poultry company, 14 migrant workers from Myanmar allegedly defamed the company by submitting a complaint over their working conditions to the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand on 7th July 2016. While the workers were later validated in their complaints and awarded compensation for their mistreatment, they are currently being sued for damaging the company's reputation. The case has become emblematic of private sector companies exploiting defamation laws to intimidate and silence activists advocating for the betterment of human rights in Thailand. 

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, over the course of 2017 Thai authorities have strengthened their wide-ranging powers to arrest, detain and prosecute anyone deemed to have insulted the ruling junta or the Thai monarchy. On 8th August 2017, Thai authorities charged two prominent political critics and a journalist for allegedly defaming the military junta on social media platform, Facebook. Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist working for online portal Khaosod English, along with former energy minister, Pichai Naripthaphan, and Watana Muangsook, the former social development and human security minister were prosecuted for simply commenting on the authorities' response to pressing social and economic issues in Thailand. Charged under sedition laws, the persecution of the three activists epitomises a situation wherein the space for peaceful dissent is increasingly criminalised under the Thailand's military junta.