(New York) – Thailand’s ruling junta should immediately release a former government minister in military custody for publicly opposing the draft constitution, Human Rights Watch said today. National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) authorities arrested Watana Muangsook, who was minister of social development and human security from 2005 to 2006, on April 18, 2016. A referendum on the draft charter is scheduled for August 7.
“The Thai junta, by gagging a prominent critic, has heightened the climate of fear ahead of the constitutional referendum,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The detention of Watana Muangsook for openly opposing the draft charter is a clear warning that the junta is prepared use intimidation and arrests to get their way in the referendum.”
The junta ordered Watana to report to the 11th Army Circle Camp in Bangkok at 11 a.m. on April 18. He was later transferred to a military facility at the 9th Infantry Division in Kanchanaburi province near the Thai-Burmese border. On April 19, Deputy Prime Minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan said in a media interview that Watana was detained for speaking out on the draft constitution: “I have warned [Watana] that he will be taken in [to military custody] every time he speaks up. If he still doesn’t listen, we will do it again and again.… Don’t tell voters whether you like the draft constitution or not.”
Under NCPO Order 3/2558, promulgated in April 2015 after the lifting of martial law, the military authority is empowered to detain a person for up to seven days to prevent and suppress certain acts – including lese majeste (insulting the monarchy), offenses against the security of the state, weapons offenses, and violations of NCPO orders.
The NCPO chairman and prime minister, Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, has reacted strongly to politicians, academics, and activists who have publicly opposed the draft constitution. On April 19 Prayut said in a media interview:
They have no rights to say that they disagree [with the draft constitution].… I don’t allow anyone to debate or hold a press conference about the draft constitution. Yet they still disobey my orders. They will be arrested and jailed for 10 years. No one will be exempted when the Referendum Act becomes effective [after announcement in the Royal Gazette]. Not even the media. Why don’t people respect the law instead of asking for democracy and human rights all the time?
The junta’s intolerance of opposition to the draft constitution, evidenced by Watana’s detention and new oppressive legislation, raises concerns of heightened repression prior to the referendum. Penalties under article 62 of the Referendum Act, approved by junta-appointed members of the National Legislative Assembly on April 7, include a prison sentence of up to 10 years for those convicted of disseminating false information in newspapers, radio, television, electronic media, or any other means to influence voters’ decisions or disrupt the referendum. Since the military coup in May 2014, the junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticisms and dissenting opinions to be “false information” and a threat to national security.
“If people can’t debate a proposed constitution, then nothing is safe for public discussion,” Adams said. “The junta’s pledges to restore democratic rule and respect for human rights have proven meaningless. Friends of Thailand from around the world should press General Prayut to immediately order an end to arbitrary arrest of critics and dissenters, and release all those being held for peaceful expression of opinions.”