(New York) – The appointment of Thailand’s junta leader as prime minister by the military-picked legislature does not advance human rights or a return to democratic rule, Human Rights Watch said today.
On August 21, 2014, the 191-member National Legislative Assembly unanimously approved Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha as the new prime minister while permitting him to retain his chairmanship of the ruling military authority, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO).
Three months after the May 22 military coup, the junta continues its crackdown on those exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms and has made no genuine progress towards restoring democratic rule. Under martial law, the junta’s sweeping powers can be carried out without any judicial or other oversight, and with full immunity from prosecution.
“As both prime minister and junta leader, Gen. Prayuth can wield broad power without accountability,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This marks a dark day for human rights and the future of democracy in Thailand.”
Under the interim constitution proclaimed on July 22, the military junta created a closed and undemocratic political system. The NCPO filled the National Legislative Assembly with military personnel and others known to be close to the junta. Since its formation, the assembly has appeared to operate as a rubber-stamp body for the NCPO rather than placing any checks on the junta’s broad executive powers. For instance, during Prayuth’s presentation of the national budget proposal on August 18, not a single assembly member made a critical comment.
Human Rights Watch learned that after the presentation Prayuth asked, “Anyone disagree with me?” The room remained silent.
Since the military coup on May 22, the NCPO has enforced widespread censorship, largely banned public gatherings and other political activity, carried out hundreds of arbitrary arrests and detentions, and disregarded allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
“Three months under military rule, the junta continues to show contempt for fundamental rights and freedoms,” Adams said. “Criticism is prosecuted, political activity is banned, free speech is censored and subjected to punishment, and several hundred people have been arbitrarily detained.”
Censorship and Restrictions on Free Expression
Restrictions on media and free expression and censorship that began after the coup have continued. Under martial law, the authorities can censor any information considered to be “distorted” or likely to cause “public misunderstanding.” Failure to comply with censorship orders could result in prosecution before a military court. As a result, print and other media operators have generally refrained from publishing news and commentary critical of the military.
The junta has not only targeted media outlets affiliated with the ousted Pheu Thai Party and its mass organization, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the “Red Shirts,” but it has also banned criticism from pro-junta newspapers and other media.
On July 26, the junta issued an order threatening to prosecute the weekly magazine Phu Jad Karn Sud Sapda if it continued to publish “false information to discredit the NCPO” after the magazine published stories alleging military cronyism and corruption. The junta also instructed the National Press Council of Thailand to launch an ethics inquiry against the magazine. In protest, Phu Jad Karn Sud Sapda announced on August 2 that it would stop publication for one month. Through August 21, the magazine’s sister ASTV satellite broadcast is off the air since the NCPO shuttered the station on May 22.
The junta has repeatedly vowed to prosecute critics of the monarchy, in violation of the right to free expression. Since the coup, at least 14 new cases of lese majeste – insulting the monarchy – have been brought to the Bangkok Military Court and criminal courts around Thailand.
On August 14 and 15, the authorities arrested two activists involved in a play, “The Wolf Bride,” performed in October 2013 that the junta considered to be “insulting to the monarchy.” Patiwat Saraiyaem and Pornthip Munkong were denied bail and are being held in detention facilities in Bangkok.
On August 14, the Bangkok Criminal Court found Yuthasak Kangwanwongsakul, a taxi driver, guilty of lese majeste based on his conversation with a passenger, and sentenced him to 30 months in jail. On July 31, the Ubon Ratchathani Court sentenced a 27-year-old man to 15 years in prison for posting messages on Facebook deemed insulting to members of the monarchy.
On August 5, the Cultural Ministry announced that the simulation game Tropico 5 was banned because it contained content that appeared to be offensive to the monarchy. The Cultural Promotion Department chief said the game allowed players to name the country and its leader or king as they pleased, and therefore the content was deemed offensive to the Thai monarchy and might affect the country’s dignity.
Arbitrary Arrests and Detention
Since the coup on May 22, the military has detained more than 300 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 banned public gatherings of more than five people and prohibits any opposition to the military authorities. On August 20, police and soldiers arrested at least 11 energy-reform advocates while they walked on the Asian Highway in Songkhla province’s Rattaphum district. The activists were told that their activity violated martial law provisions banning public gatherings of more than five people. Those arrested were taken to the Senanarong Army Camp in Hat Yai district, where they are being held indefinitely.
On August 10, the authorities ordered Amnesty International Thailand to stop its campaign activity in Bangkok calling for peace in the Gaza Strip, citing the public assembly restrictions and prohibition on political events.
On August 8, the NCPO attempted to stop an academic seminar on the interim constitution at Thammasat University in Bangkok. A letter, signed by Col. Noppadon Tawrit, commander of the Kings Guard’s 1st Field Artillery Regiment, to the university rector, stated that the event should be stopped in order “to prevent the resurgence of differences in political attitude.”
The NCPO has held people in incommunicado lockup in unofficial places of detention, such as military camps. Some have been held longer than the seven-day limit for administrative detention under martial law. For example, Yongyuth Boondee, a well-known Red Shirt supporter, was arrested by soldiers in Chiang Mai province on June 28. He was brought to a news conference on July 1, in which the authorities accused him of involvement in grenade attacks and shootings at opposition demonstrations. Since then, the authorities have refused to provide Yongyuth’s family with information on his whereabouts. On August 8, military officers told legal aid activists that Yongyuth had “consented” to voluntarily stay in military custody at an undisclosed location.
Kritsuda Khunasen, another Red Shirt activist, was arrested by soldiers on May 27 in Chonburi province and held incommunicado until June 24, when she was released without charge. In a video interview released on August 2, Kritsuda alleged that soldiers beat her during interrogation and suffocated her with a plastic bag over her head until she lost consciousness. The Thai authorities quickly blocked access to the interview on YouTube and to an English language article about her case. There has not been any official inquiry into Kritsuda’s allegations or other reports of mistreatment in military custody.
The NCPO’s response to Kritsuda’s allegations has been dismissive, raising broader concerns for the authorities’ treatment of all detainees.
On August 20, Worawut Thuagchaiphum, a student at Mahasarakham University, told the media that military personnel threatened him with enforced disappearance and death while in military custody in May because he had protested against the coup. He and his friends had made cloth banners with anti-coup messages and hung them from a clock tower and around Mahasarakham. After the media reported Worawut’s account, the army unit that allegedly interrogated him summoned him to report to its base.
Since the NCPO’s announcement on June 24 that all detainees held without charge had been released, no information has been provided about releases, and individuals continue to be arrested and detained. Those released from military detention have to sign an agreement that they will not make political comments, become involved in political activities, or travel overseas without the junta’s permission. Failure to comply could result in a new detention, or a sentence of two years in prison, or a fine of 40,000 baht (US$1,250).
“Since the May coup, the generals have tightened rather than relaxed their grip on power,” Adams said. “Instead of the promised path back to democracy through free and fair elections, Thailand’s military seems to be opting for a road to dictatorship.”