(Bangkok) – Protest leaders in Thailand should immediately end their campaign to obstruct voting in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. The Thai authorities should permit peaceful protest but also ensure security forces do not commit abuses, while intervening impartially to prevent and stop violence by any group. The leaders of all political groups should act to prevent escalating violence by their supporters.
Thailand’s national elections are scheduled for February 2, 2014. The Election Commission of Thailand reported that 440,000 out of the approximately 2 million people across Thailand who registered for advance voting could not cast ballots on January 26, due to obstruction of polling sites by antigovernment protesters from the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). Altogether, obstruction by the PDRC and other antigovernment groups resulted in voting being canceled on January 26 in 48 out of Bangkok’s 50 districts.
“The protesters claim they are fighting corruption and seeking reforms, but this doesn’t justify their use of force and intimidation to block voting,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Preventing people from casting ballots shows serious contempt for basic rights of voters and democratic principles.”
On January 24, PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban announced that antigovernment protesters “will not block the election but we will persuade everyone” not to cast ballots. But on January 26, protesters surrounded polling stations and chain-locked the gates. In some cases they also intimidated and assaulted voters.
At Saint John’s Polytechnic School in Bangkok’s Jatujak district, protesters pushed and choked a man who tried to pass through the protesters’ blockade to enter the polling station. Outside the Bang Bon district office, a woman was assaulted after she tried to photograph protesters who prevented her from voting. Protesters also assaulted a man at the Wang Thonglang district office who was trying to vote.
Outside Bangkok, opposition groups obstructed voting in the following provinces: Surat Thani, Ranong, Trang, Pattalung, Chumporn, Krabi, Phang-nga, Phuket, Nakhon Srithammarat, Samut Songkram, Samut Sakhon, and Petchabun. In Thailand’s southern provinces, the PDRC blocked candidate registration in 28 constituencies preventing elections there.
The PDRC’s campaign to derail the general election reflects a deeply worrying trend by political groups to use violence. Radical elements within the PDRC, particularly the Network of Students and People for Thailand’s Reform, previously clashed with police on December 26, 2013, when they blocked entry to the Thai-Japanese Stadium in Bangkok to prevent the Election Commission’s registration of party-list candidates. One protester and one police officer were shot dead, and there were more than 90 injuries on both sides. On January 17 and 18, 2014, PDRC protesters surrounded the Teacher Council’s printing house in Bangkok to demand the factory stop the printing of ballots, and cut electricity and water supplies to the buildings.
Government supporters from the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the Red Shirts, responded to voter obstruction by attacking a motorcade of protesters in Bangkok’s Bang Na district with guns and clubs. One protester was shot dead and at least 11 were wounded by gunfire and beatings.
Since November 2013, there have been more than 30 attacks against antigovernment demonstrators, members of the opposition Democrat Party, demonstration sites, and protesters’ motorcades. On January 17, 2014, a grenade was thrown at PDRC protesters as they were marching in downtown Bangkok, killing one and injuring 39. Two days later, 28 people, including protesters and a journalist, were wounded in a grenade attack at PDRC’s demonstration site at Bangkok’s Victory Monument.
“Thailand is spiraling into political violence as opposition and pro-government groups respond tit-for-tat against attacks and provocations,” Adams said. “Leaders on all sides need to rein in their supporters, order the attacks to stop, and negotiate a political solution that respects democratic principles before the situation deteriorates further.”
The Thai authorities should fully investigate recent violence against protesters and prosecute those responsible. The police have not reported any progress in the investigations of any of these cases. Thai authorities need to allow antigovernment demonstrations that are secure.
On January 24, in response to the worsening situation, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra announced a state of emergency in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces for 60 days. Under the state of emergency, public gatherings of more than five people are banned. The media is prohibited from presenting, selling, or distributing news that could jeopardize national security, public order, and public morality. Authorities enforcing the state of emergency are empowered to restrict the use of certain roads, transport, and buildings, as well as to order people to move out of, or bar from entering, designated areas. However, the government has not put forward any credible justification for suspending human rights protections provided under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Thailand, which requires an emergency that “threatens the life of the nation” and limits the measures imposed to those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.”
Government measures to protect public safety may be justified so long as they are provided by law, and are proportionate to the level of threat or legitimate objective to be achieved. In policing demonstrations, all members of the security forces should abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which provide that authorities shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, the authorities shall use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.
“The Thai authorities have an obligation to uphold the right to peaceful protest, but they also need to maintain law and order,” Adams said. “That means acting quickly to prevent violence and acting impartially to stop it when it occurs.”