UPDATE: After meeting with major Thai media associations, on July 21, 2014, the ruling military National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) issued order 103/2557, which amends the prohibition on all forms of criticism of the NCPO’s actions. The new order clarifies that the ban targets criticisms made with “malice” and “false information” that “aim to discredit” the NCPO. However, determining what content violates the provisions of order 103/2557 remains solely at the NCPO’s discretion. Order 103/2557 also sets out that instead of facing a shutdown as provided in NCPO order 97/2557, a media outlet that violates the ban on criticisms of the NCPO and military actions will face an ethics inquiry by relevant media associations.
(New York) – The Thai military junta should immediately revoke rights-abusing martial law powers, end censorship, and stop persecuting dissidents and critics, Human Rights Watch said today. The junta should urgently restore democratic, civilian rule.
After seizing power in a coup on May 22, 2014, the Thai military created the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), consisting of all branches of the armed forces and the police. It has enforced widespread censorship, detained more than 300 people – most without charge, banned public gatherings, and issued repressive orders targeting activists and grass-roots groups.
“Two months of military rule in Thailand has brought alarming setbacks in respect for basic human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “While the military junta claims it’s returning ‘happiness’ to the nation, the junta is actually enforcing a regime of forced smiles by prohibiting criticism, imposing aggressive censorship, and arbitrarily putting hundreds in detention.”
Censorship and Restrictions on Free Expression
Censorship and restrictions on the media that began after the coup have intensified in recent days, in an apparent effort to silence any critics of military rule. On the evening of July 18, shortly after the weekly address by the army chief and NCPO leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha, all television broadcasts were interrupted for the junta’s announcement 97/2557, “Cooperating with the Work of the National Council for Peace and Order and the Distribution of News to the Public.” The order effectively prohibits any criticism of the military authorities. The NCPO directed print media, as well as TV, radio, cable, and online media operators, not to publish or broadcast any information critical of the military’s actions. The restrictions also apply to online social media.
In addition, the NCPO instructed print media, TV, and radio programs not to carry any critical commentaries or invite as guests on their programs anyone who might make negative comments about the NCPO. The military authorities also banned any information they consider “distorted” or likely to cause “public misunderstanding” in broadcasts and printed publications, and on social media and websites. Determining what information falls within these prohibited categories is solely within the discretion of the NCPO. Soliciting individuals to undertake any acts to resist NCPO rule or do anything else that could “cause the public to panic” is also outlawed.
Failure to comply with the NCPO order could result in the military, provincial governor, or provincial police chief shutting down the offending news outlet. Offenders also could face prosecution in a military court under provisions of the Martial Law Act of 1914, which General Prayuth invoked two days before the coup.
The NCPO has also strictly banned public gatherings of more than five people and prohibits activities that oppose the military authorities and their actions. The Bangkok acting deputy Metropolitan Police commissioner, Maj. Gen. Amnuay Nimmano, told the media that people are not allowed to assert their rights to stage a political gathering or oppose the sovereign authority of the NCPO. Protesters who have expressed disagreement with the junta – such as by showing a three-finger salute as an act of defiance, putting duct tape over their mouths, reading the novel 1984 in public, or playing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” in public – have been arrested and could face a possible two-year prison term.
Arbitrary and Secret Detention
Since the May 22, 2014 coup, the NCPO has detained more than 300 ruling party and opposition politicians, activists, journalists, and people accused of supporting the deposed government, disrespecting or offending the monarchy, or being involved in anti-coup protests and activities.
The NCPO has placed those people in incommunicado lockup in unofficial places of detention, such as military camps, in some cases holding them for more than the seven-day limit for administrative detention under martial law. For example, soldiers arrested Kritsuda Khunasen, a well-known activist with the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), in Chonburi province on May 28. The military authorities did not admit until June 21 that she was in their custody in an undisclosed location. Only after intense advocacy by rights groups did the NCPO say they were holding her, and on June 24, paraded her in front of TV cameras. She was released without charge shortly thereafter.
The military authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest and detain people despite publicly asserting that the practice has stopped. In an apparent response to international condemnation, on June 24 the NCPO announced that everyone being held without charge in military custody had been released. Yet, the NCPO has provided no information about those it claims to have released, and did not provide evidence of their release.
Two days later, the military authorities announced that the formal summons procedure – used to call in a wide range of people for questioning – would be discontinued. However, on June 30 the NCPO issued at least one summons without any public announcement to Jom Petchpradab, an outspoken news anchor, and 17 other people.
The NCPO compels those released from military detention to sign an agreement that they will not make political comments, become involved in political activities, or travel overseas without NCPO permission. Failure to comply is punishable by a new round of detention, a sentence of up to two years in prison, or a fine of 40,000 baht (US$1,250).
Thanapol Eawsakul, the editor of Fah Diew Khan (Same Sky) magazine, was detained for the second time between July 5 and July 7 after he continued to post critical comments on his Facebook page. On July 18, Natthapong Bunpong, a student from Mahasarakham University, was summoned to report to the provincial military command in Buriram province for posting anti-coup comments online after he was released from a previous detention. He was then placed in incommunicado detention in an unknown military camp until July 21.
Defying the NCPO’s summonses can also lead to severe consequences. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a well-known lecturer at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, faced an arrest warrant for failing to report when summoned. The NCPO ordered the Foreign Affairs Ministry to cancel his passport when he refused to return to Thailand to surrender to the military authorities. Pavin faces a military trial, and possible punishment of two years in prison, or a fine of 40,000 baht ($1,250), if found guilty.
Repressive Actions Against Vulnerable Groups
The NCPO has enforced repressive measures that deny transparent and participatory processes seeking fair solutions to problems concerning vulnerable groups. For instance, in Buriram province, the military authorities have justified aggressive actions to evict more than 1,000 residents of six villages from forest reserve areas by citing NCPO order 64/2557, which instructs government agencies to end deforestation and encroachment on forest reserves nationwide. Despite the NCPO’s assurance that military operations carried out on the basis of the order should not impact the poor, people with low incomes, or the landless who have lived on the land prior to the order, these promises were disregarded in the Buriram case.
The villagers – from Kao Bart, Saeng Sawan, Talat Khwai, Pa Mamuang, Klong Hin Mai, and Sam Salueng villages in Non Ding Daeng district – have had a longstanding conflict with the Thai authorities over land ownership and their right to live in officially designated forest areas. On June 28, soldiers ordered them to leave their villages or face forcible relocation and the destruction of their homes. A series of human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrests and detention of community leaders, followed the eviction orders.
By July 12, residents of Talat Khwai and Pa Mamuang villages had already vacated their houses. Forced eviction efforts have been under way in the four other villages. The military authorities did not provide compensation or financial assistance to villagers who vacated their houses or to those whose houses were dismantled by soldiers.
“Thailand’s generals have discarded the country’s democratic rule in favor of repressive orders, policies, and practices, showing dangerous signs of a longer term dictatorship,” Adams said.