(New York) – Thailand’s military junta should drop sedition and other criminal charges against eight people for mocking the prime minister on Facebook, Human Rights Watch said today. The Facebook page shows memes and doctored photos of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha, who chairs the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, with satirical quotes.
The charges against the Facebook users are part of the junta’s systematic repression of peaceful dissent and criticism since the military coup in May 2014, Human Rights Watch said.
“Slapping people with sedition charges for political satire on Facebook shows that no political discussion is safe in Thailand anymore,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “General Prayut doesn’t seem to realize that attempts to scare his online critics into silence only invite further mockery by those seeking an end to government repression.”
Military units arrested the eight suspects in nearly simultaneous raids in Bangkok and Khon Kaen province on April 27, 2016. Thai authorities accused Natthika Worathaiyawich, Harit Mahaton, Noppakao Kongsuwan, Worawit Saksamutnan, Yothin Mangkhangsanga, Thanawat Buranasiri, Supachai Saibut, and Kannasit Tangboonthina of being involved in the making and dissemination of commentary on the parody Facebook page “We Love General Prayut.” They have been charged with sedition under article 116 of the penal code, which carries up to a seven-year sentence, and with violating the 2007 Computer Crime Act.
Natthika and Harit also face additional charges under article 112 of the penal code for Facebook commentary that Thai authorities considered to be offensive to the monarchy. Despite being civilians, they are being brought to trial in a military court. The Bangkok military court has denied bail for all eight suspects, saying bailed release is impossible because their cases carry heavy penalties for serious criminal charges against national security.
The Thai junta has alleged that the Thai-language Facebook page, which categorized itself as a “comedian” site, was created with funding from the son of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to ridicule and discredit General Prayut and the Thai government. The government provided no evidence to back its claims of sponsorship, but alleged the Facebook page has generated dissent and unruly behavior among Thai people.
On April 12, General Prayut said in a media interview that he ordered Thai authorities to take legal action against anyone involved in efforts to mock him on social media: “I will prosecute them all. They can’t make fun of me… My legal team already has their eyes on these people. What they do is illegal.” The junta’s legal office and the police also stated that they consider it an offense to share or press “Like” on Facebook pages or other online media containing such parody.
The junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinions to be seditious acts and threats to national security, Human Rights Watch said. Military authorities have also prosecuted those accused of being involved in anti-junta activities or supporting the deposed government. Most of these arrests have been brought under NCPO Order 3/2558, which empowers soldiers to arrest and detain a person for up to seven days in a military facility without effective oversight and safeguards against mistreatment and denial of due process.
Over the past two years, the junta has charged at least 46 people with sedition, including:
- Former Education Minister Chaturon Chaisaeng for giving a speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand criticizing military rule (May 2014);
- Activist Sombat Boongamanong for Facebook and Twitter posts calling people to join anti-junta rallies (June 2014);
- Activist Pansak Srithep for demanding the military to be held accountable for the 2010 political violence and calling for an end to military trials of civilians (March 2015);
- 14 activists from the New Democracy Movement (NDM) for staging a rally demanding a transition to democratic civilian rule (June 2015); and
- Homemaker Theerawan Charoensuk for posting her photo holding a red plastic bowl inscribed with Thai New Year greetings from former Prime Ministers Thaksin Shinawatra and Yingluck Shinawatra (May 2016).
Thailand’s human rights record will be examined by the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group on May 11.
The junta’s enforcement of the sedition law has violated Thailand’s obligations under international human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Thailand is a party, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, necessary, and proportionate to address a legitimate threat. In particular, laws imposing criminal penalties for peaceful expression are of concern because of their chilling effect on free speech.
“Thailand’s draconian sedition law is an abomination to free expression that should be promptly repealed,” Adams said. “Friends of Thailand from around the world should call on General Prayut to immediately order an end to the arrest and detention of peaceful critics and dissenters.”