Thailand: Civil society under attack as authorities criminalize dissent

Thai authorities are waging a campaign to criminalize and punish dissent by targeting civil society and political activists who peacefully exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, a new briefing from Amnesty International said today.

Dozens of human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists and others are currently being investigated and prosecuted under draconian laws and decrees, which are used as tools to silence critics by Thailand’s military government.

“The Thai authorities have created a fearful environment where people cannot speak or assemble peacefully without risking arrest and prosecution,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Director for South East Asia and the Pacific.

“The severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly speak volumes to the actions of a government that cannot tolerate different opinions on issues of national importance.”

The briefing, “They Cannot Keep Us Quiet”: The Criminalization of Activists, Human Rights Defenders and Others in Thailand, describes ongoing criminal proceedings against 64 members of Thailand’s civil society, including political activists, students, community organizers and environmental defenders. The cases also cover researchers, lawyers, journalists and academics.

The Thai authorities have created a fearful environment where people cannot speak or assemble peacefully without risking arrest and prosecution

Champa Patel, Southeast Asia and Pacific Director

The people investigated and prosecuted have done nothing more than exercise human rights that Thailand is obliged to respect and protect under international law. None of them have resorted to or advocated violence.

Some have been targeted because they reported on torture and other ill-treatment, and raised concerns about corruption. And others because they called for greater academic freedom, or stated their desire to have a say in the affairs of government.

Many of the people investigated and prosecuted were simply doing their jobs, as lawyers, journalists and advocates for vulnerable communities.

Authorities are using an array of laws and decrees to investigate, arrest and prosecute members of Thailand’s civil society. Penal Code provisions relating to sedition, defamation and offences to the monarchy, as well as the restrictive Computer Crimes Act, have frequently been used in cases against these individuals.

The authorities have turned Thailand’s laws into tools of coercion with which to silence human rights and political activists

Champa Patel, Southeast Asia and Pacific Director

Authorities have also initiated criminal proceedings under new laws and decrees promulgated by Thailand’s military government since it took power in a May 2014 coup, including the 2015 Public Assembly Act and the 2016 Referendum Act. Head of NCPO Order No. 3/2558, a decree issued by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in 2015, bans “political gatherings” of five or more persons. Authorities have frequently used this order to detain and charge peaceful protesters.

Many activists and human rights defenders face lengthy proceedings before military courts, which fail to protect the right to a fair trial. Several face criminal proceedings in multiple cases and could be imprisoned for decades, if convicted.

For example, Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, a student activist and human rights defender, is being subjected to criminal proceedings in five distinct cases relating to his participation in public protests, handing out of materials urging voters to reject the draft constitution prior to last year’s referendum, and posting of an article on Facebook that was deemed to be critical of the Thai monarchy. He is currently being held in Khon Kaen Remand Prison after a court revoked his bail. He could face up to 40 years imprisonment if convicted in all cases. 

“The authorities have turned Thailand’s laws into tools of coercion with which to silence human rights and political activists. If criminal proceedings lead to convictions, the stain on the legacy of the military government will become indelible,” said Champa Patel.

The Thai government’s current campaign against civil society and the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly casts a shadow over its plans for elections, likely to be held in 2018.

Civil society, already chafing under restrictions imposed by the military government on a wide array of human rights, could be severely impacted by the conviction of a large number of its members. Many of those facing criminal proceedings are leaders in their fields, and it is imperative that they are able to help shape Thailand’s future.

Thai authorities must therefore immediately drop charges and end criminal proceedings against the individuals profiled in this briefing and others who are being investigated or prosecuted solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights.

In January, prosecutors established a positive precedent in this regard by dropping criminal charges against Naritsarawan “May” Kaewnopparat, a young woman profiled in the briefing. A military officer had initiated criminal proceedings against May because of her public campaign to secure justice for her uncle, an army private that was tortured to death during military training.

However, restrictions on human rights that were once cast as temporary measures have not been lifted more than two-and-a-half years after the coup and could become permanent under Thailand’s new constitution, which would sweepingly grant them legitimacy and legality.

In particular, authorities have given no indication of when Order No. 3/2558’s ban on public gatherings may be lifted, raising concerns among political parties and civic groups preparing for a new campaign season. Thailand’s government must prioritize the reform or repeal of laws and orders that unjustifiably restrict human rights, including those described in the briefing.

“Since coming to power, Thailand’s military government has dismantled protections of human rights and smothered free expression in the country. If repressive laws and orders are not quickly reformed or repealed, restrictions on human rights could become entrenched,” said Champa Patel.