Military junta violates and restricts citizens' rights to peaceful assembly

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the space for dissent in Thailand has been steadily shrinking since the military junta, otherwise known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), took power in a coup in 2014. The NCPO uses its extraordinary powers under the constitution to restrict freedom of expression and assembly through a number of restrictive laws.

Peaceful assembly

On 29th January 2018, the NCPO filed police complaints against seven prominent pro-democracy activists for sedition and violation of the military junta's ban on public assemblies. The activists had organised a protest outside the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre to demand the military lift its restrictions on fundamental freedoms and hold an election by November 2018, as previously pledged by the Prime Minister. In addition, as the Centre is located near the Royal Residence (Sra Prathum Palace), the seven activists, along with 32 other protesters, face accusations of violating the 2015 Public Assembly Act which prohibits any public gathering within a 150 metre radius of the Royal Residence. 

In regards to the accusations, Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, stated that:

“By prosecuting activists for peacefully protesting military rule, Thailand’s junta shows just how unwilling it is to ease its political repression…with each arbitrary charge against dissenters and critics, the junta makes a mockery of its promises to restore democracy to Thailand”.

On 27th November 2017, Thai authorities arrested 16 individuals protesting against the construction of a coal-powered power plant in the southern province of Songkhla. The protesters had gathered with approximately 100 local leaders and environmental activists to march from Thepha district, Songkhla province to the site of a meeting of Thailand’s cabinet in Muang district, Songkhla province. Police and military personnel in riot gear blocked the marchers and minor clashes broke out between the security forces and protesters.

In response to the arrests, the UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia called on the Thai government to release the 16 and drop all charges. The UN Office expressed its concern as "community members and activists in Thailand have increasingly been killed, physically attacked, legally charged under criminal defamation, and are also prevented from peacefully demonstrating or participating in public discussions related to development projects".

On 12th January 2018, the 16 protesters were prosecuted for reportedly "resisting arrest, injuring state authorities, obstructing traffic, carrying weapons in public areas and violating the Public Assembly Act". Songkhla-Pattani Anti-Coal Network has demanded that the charges be dropped, asserting that the protesters should not be prosecuted for exercising their constitutionally-protected rights. 

NCPO order No. 3/2015 has been consistently used to prohibit political gatherings of five or more people. It also allows military officials to detain for up to seven days and interrogate anyone deemed a threat to its authority.

In December 2017, a coalition of democratic and human rights groups announced that they were planning to petition for the order's annulment in the Constitutional Court. The Democratic Restoration Group, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights Centre and representatives of those who had been prosecuted under this NCPO order have formed a coalition to file the case based on Section 213 of the Thai Constitution, which allows individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated to directly petition the court. At this time, the petition is still before the Constitutional Court.

Rangsiman Rome, a member of the coalition, commented on the legality of the order, stating that:

“I don’t consider the NCPO’s order or announcement as a law since it was not scrutinised by many parties and approved by Parliament...the NCPO’s order was made by a few people and discriminatorily enforced against people who have different political opinions from the junta. For the victim, he does not know who has arrested him. Neither does he know his own future in the seven-day custody period".

Expression

On 17th January 2018, the authorities dropped charges against 84-year old historian Sulak Sivaraksa who questioned whether a Thai king had actually defeated a Burmese adversary in combat on elephant-back over 500 years ago. Sulak was charged in October 2017 under the lese-majeste law, which punishes any criticism of or insult to the Thai monarchy.

According to Human Rights Watch, since the coup in 2014, authorities have arrested at least 105 people on lese majeste charges, mostly for posting or sharing critical commentary online. Some have been convicted and sentenced to decades of imprisonment.

Freedom on the Net rated Thailand as "not free" for the fourth consecutive year in November 2017. Statistics show that the status of freedom on the internet in Thailand has been in steady decline since the military took power in 2014. Freedom House pointed out that new amendments to the Computer Crime Act, which expand official censorship and surveillance powers, as one of the key contributors to the recent decline.