CIVICUS Brief - Thailand: End crackdown on civil society and restore democratic freedoms

20 August 2014. Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, strongly condemns the continued denial of basic democratic freedoms by the military junta in Thailand and calls on the military to immediately remove unwarranted restrictions on civil society and the independent media. 

Since the May 22 coup, the military junta led by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has overseen the wholesale suspension of fundamental civil liberties in an attempt to stifle criticism and popular protest. The NCPO’s continued invocation of overbroad legislation to criminalize dissent represents a severe breach of international human rights law.  

Judicial persecution of human rights defenders

Despite firm constitutional protections against arbitrary detention, the NCPO has invoked restrictive legislation to endow the military with excessive powers to imprison human rights defenders and peaceful dissidents. 

Under the 1949 Martial Law Act brought into force two days prior to the coup, the military is permitted to arrest and detain individuals without charge for up to seven days. Moreover, under an order issued by the NCPO on 25 May, military courts are authorized to oversee a number of crimes which previously fell under the jurisdiction of civilian courts. These include offences under the Criminal Code and those related to national security and sedition. 

Under these and other laws, at least 300 human rights defenders, including prominent academics, civil society activists, journalists and opposition members have been summoned by the NCPO and arbitrarily detained for engaging in peaceful and legitimate activities.  While an unknown number of activists remain in prison, those who have been released have been forced to pledge to refrain from further political activities. Individuals who resume their human rights work following their release face up to two years in prison or a fine of 40,000 baht (approximately USD 1250) 

Most recently from 15-16 August, two student social activists, Mr. Patiwat and Ms. Pornthip (last names withheld), were arrested for failing to obey a military summons issued on 13 August. The arrests reportedly stems from their role in a play, The Wolf Bride, which commemorates the 40th anniversary of the 14 October 1973 Thai popular uprising. Both activists are being charged under article 112 of the Penal Code and have been denied bail by the Criminal Court in Bangkok which described the performance as having “tarnished the reputation of the monarchy and brought grievances to the people”.  If convicted they face from 3-15 years in prison.

Censorship and criminalisation of freedom of expression 

In a blatant attempt to silence critical reporting of the military takeover, the NCPO has imposed wide scale and illegitimate restrictions on the media and social networks. 

In the days surrounding the coup, the military took unprecedented action to control the free flow of information in the country. From 20-24 May, the NCPO effectively closed or blocked nearly 15 radio and television channels in a barrage of censorship which affected virtually the entire sector. Those media outlets which were not shut down were forced to air programmes and information directly from the military. 

While a number of these media houses outlets have since resumed operations, the NCPO has subsequently introduced several constricting regulations aimed at censoring reporting critical of the military. On 18 July, the military issued decree 97/2557, prohibiting the dissemination of all information critical of the military or likely to cause conflict. While the NCPO has since loosened restrictions under decree 103/2557, including only banning criticism deemed “malicious” and “false”, those who violate the order may face an ethics inquiry under the auspices of media associations.  

Moreover, a number of journalists have been subjected to harassment and judicial persecution for their independent work. On 5 July 2014, Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of Fah Diew Gahn magazine, was arrested for the second time over the course of two weeks. Thanapol’s latest arrest under the Martial Law Act reportedly stems from a message he posted on Facebook deemed critical of the military. Thanapol was previously arrested on 24 May after being summoned by the military and held for seven days.  Thanapol has since suspended publication of the magazine. 

Unwarranted restrictions on demonstrations and public dissent

In a complete affront to the fundamental right to peaceful assembly, the NCPO has also imposed a blanket ban on all demonstrations in the country. Issued on 22 May, NCPO decree No. 7 strictly prohibits public gatherings of more than five people. Those who violate the decree are subjected to draconian penalties including one year in prison or a fine of up to 20,000 baht (approximately USD 625) 

Despite the ban, a number of activists have sought to organize demonstrations and public acts of defiance opposing the military takeover. Large numbers of demonstrators have since been summarily arrested and detained in connection to their peaceful activities. 

Recently, on 17 July, land rights activist, Prom Jarana, was arrested at his home in Buriram Province. Jarana, who works with civil society group, Assembly of the Poor, was detained as a result of his work advocating for greater protection for local communities. On 15 July, two days prior to his arrest, Jarana participated in a rally outside of the military headquarters in Bangkok calling on NCPO to put an end to the ongoing forced evictions of villagers. Jarana was released the same day after being held incommunicado for over 10 hours.

The NCPO continues to harass and persecute peaceful demonstrators who publicly speak out against NCPO policies. On 22 June, the police arrested at least eight demonstrators for publically reciting excerpts from George Orwell’s novel, 1984. In addition, in a move aimed at controlling any form of dissent, the government has formally banned individuals and groups from publicly displaying the “three finger salute,” a symbol of defiance adopted by anti-coup activists.

CIVICUS urges Thailand’s trading and strategic partners, including members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to diplomatically engage the National Council for Peace and Order with a view to:

•Immediately lifting Martial Law;

•Unconditionally and immediately releasing all human rights defenders and journalists detained for exercising their freedoms of expression, association and assembly;

•Independently  investigating all instances of violations of the rights of human rights defenders;

•Removing all unwarranted and excessive restrictions on the freedom of assembly, including NCPO decree No. 7;

•Ceasing censorship of the independent media and social networks, including repeal of decree 103/2557.

 

 

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