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(New York) - Thai authorities should ensure that opposition political rallies are protected from attack by pro-government groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since late May 2008, pro-government groups have attacked about a dozen rallies across Thailand organized by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a coalition of groups critical of the government. On July 24, 2008, in the most serious incident to date, police stood by while pro-government thugs beat and critically injured at least 13 PAD supporters and destroyed public property at a rally in Udorn Thani province.

“Thai authorities have failed to protect their citizens’ basic right to peaceful assembly,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By allowing pro-government thugs free rein to unleash violence, the authorities are putting Thailand’s fragile democracy at risk. Officials should investigate these attacks and hold to account those responsible for the violence, as well as any officials who failed to stop it.”

On July 24, Kwanchai Praipana and Uthai Saenkaew, the younger brother of Agriculture Minister Theerachai Saenkaew, led some 1,000 members of the pro-government Khon Rak Udorn Club to forcibly break up a peaceful rally of about 200 PAD supporters at Nong Prajak public park in Muang district, Udorn Thani province. Local radio station FM 97.5 reportedly urged pro-government supporters to carry out violence against the rally. Pro-government supporters were armed with swords, axes, knives, iron clubs, wooden clubs, and slingshots.

News footage and eyewitness accounts show that local authorities made no effort to stop the violence. Some 500 police and district defense volunteers at the rally did not try to perform their duties – even when thugs beat PAD supporters nearly to death right in front of them. And they made no attempt to arrest those who destroyed property at the rally.

Since May 25, tens of thousands of people have joined the PAD in rallies in Bangkok and across the country to express opposition for the administration of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. The PAD has accused the government of corruption, abuse of power, and being unpatriotic, among other criticisms. Although the PAD often uses strong language to criticize the government and has staged lengthy roadblocks in Bangkok, most of its activities have been peaceful. On June 20, PAD supporters tried to force their way through police barricades to seize the Government House where the Cabinet sits.

On at least 11 occasions in Bangkok, Udorn Thani, Sakol Nakhon, Chiang Mai, Sri Saket, Chiang Rai, Mahasarakham, and Buriram provinces, pro-government groups that are often associated with members of parliament from the ruling party have attacked PAD supporters, causing scores of injuries and damaging public property. In one instance, at a PAD rally in Mahasarakham province on July 23, former senator Karun Sai-Ngarm was on the stage when he was hit in the face with a marble from a slingshot and had to be rushed to hospital.

To date Thai authorities have failed to take action against those responsible for the attacks. In some cases, local police and provincial governors have promised to investigate the attacks and arrest those responsible but there is no evidence that this has occurred.

“The government of Prime Minister Samak should uphold the right to peaceful assembly as a basic component of democracy guaranteed in the Thai Constitution,” said Pearson.

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