(New York) – Thailand’s junta has failed to fulfill pledges to respect human rights and restore democratic rule three years after the military coup, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), led by Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, has instead prolonged its crackdown on basic rights and freedoms, and devised a quasi-democratic system that the military can manipulate and control.
“The Thai junta’s empty promises to respect rights and restore democratic rule have become some sort of a sick joke played on the Thai people and the international community,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Three years after the coup, the junta still prosecutes peaceful critics of the government, bans political activity, censors the media, and stifles free speech.”
Sweeping, Unchecked, and Unaccountable Military Power
General Prayuth and the Thai military staged a coup on May 22, 2014, and created the NCPO junta. On March 31, 2015, the nation-wide enforcement of the Martial Law Act of 1914 was replaced with section 44 of the 2014 interim constitution, which allows General Prayuth as the NCPO chairman to wield power without administrative, legislative, or judicial oversight or accountability, including for human rights violations. In addition, section 47 states that all such orders are “deemed to be legal, constitutional, and conclusive.” Section 48 further provides that NCPO members and anyone carrying out actions on behalf of the NCPO “shall be absolutely exempted from any wrongdoing, responsibility, and liabilities.”
Key constitutional bodies set up by the NCPO – such as the National Legislative Assembly – are dominated by military personnel and other junta loyalists, meaning that there are no effective checks and balances on military rule.
The new constitution, which was promulgated on March 6, 2017, ensures that NCPO members will not be held accountable for any of the many rights violations committed since taking power. It also strengthens and prolongs military control of the government even after an election that the junta promises to hold in 2018.
“The new constitution whitewashes all junta rights violations, ensuring that Thai military leaders can continue to commit abuses without fear of prosecution,” Adams said.
Censorship and Restrictions on Free Expression
The junta’s promised reconciliation and “road map” to return to democratic civilian rule has become meaningless as a result of the censorship and prosecution of those expressing dissenting opinions.
Immediately after the May 2014 coup, the NCPO forced satellite TV channels and community radio stations from all political factions off the air. Some were later allowed to resume broadcasting if they agreed to self-censorship, by excluding programs on political issues.
Since then, the junta has aggressively restricted media freedom and conducted extensive surveillance of the internet and other online communications. Print media have been ordered not to publicize commentaries critical of the junta. TV and radio programs have been instructed not to invite guests who might give negative comments about the situation in Thailand.
Three years after the coup, repression against anyone openly critical of the government continues. On March 27, 2017, a government order forced Voice TV – a private station known for its criticism of military rule – off the air. Voice TV had aired stories that contradicted and disparaged information provided by military authorities about the raid on Dhammakaya Temple, the army’s killing of a teenage ethnic Lahu activist, the arrest of anti-government groups for alleged weapons possession and plotting assassinations of the prime minister and others, and the controversial construction of a casino on the Thai-Cambodian border.
Asserting that political discussions and differences in political opinions could somehow undermine social stability and national security, Thai authorities have frequently canceled political events, academic panels, seminars, and public forums on issues related to the state of human rights and freedom in Thailand. Most recently, on World Press Freedom Day on March 3, Thai authorities ordered the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) to cancel its panel discussion on the disappearance of a plaque commemorating the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand in 1932. On May 19, police arrested eight activists in Bangkok after they staged a mime performance in memory of those killed and wounded from excessive use of force by the military during the political upheavals in 2010. Not only does the military remain completely untouchable, but many of the commanders involved in the 2010 crackdown – including General Prayuth – are now ruling Thailand.
Thailand’s new Computer-Related Crime Act, which the junta-installed National Legislative Assembly adopted in December 2016, gives broad powers to the government to restrict free speech and enforce surveillance and censorship. On May 16, Thai authorities threatened to shut down all access for users in Thailand to Facebook to pressure the social media platform to block or remove alleged lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) content posted by various users.
People charged with lese majeste, a serious criminal offense in Thailand, are routinely denied bail and held in prison for months or years while awaiting trial. This is the case of prominent pro-democracy student activist Jatupat Boonphatthararaksa, who faces lese majeste and computer crimes charges for posting on his Facebook page a profile of Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, published by the BBC Thai language service. Thai authorities deemed the article to be critical of the monarchy and blocked it in Thailand. Since the May 2014 coup, at least 105 people have been arrested on lese majeste charges, mostly for posting or sharing online commentary. Some have been convicted and sentenced to years or even decades of imprisonment.
Thai authorities continue to enforce the NCPO’s ban on political gatherings of more than five people, with violators subject to punishment that includes up to a year in prison and a 20,000 baht (US$600) fine. Thousands of dissenting activists, politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders have been taken to military camps for questioning and, in the junta’s parlance, “adjusting” of their attitude. The junta has also compelled those released from “attitude adjustment” programs to sign a written agreement that they will not make political comments, become involved in political activities, or oppose military rule – all in violation of their fundamental human rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Failure to comply with such agreements could result in a new detention or a sentence of two years in prison.
Arbitrary Secret Detention, Torture and Military Courts
Under NCPO Orders 3/2015 and 13/2016, military authorities have the power to secretly detain people for up to seven days without charge and interrogate them without access to lawyers or safeguards against mistreatment. The junta has repeatedly dismissed allegations that soldiers have tortured detainees but then failed to provide any evidence to rebut those allegations.
Human Rights Watch has frequently raised serious concerns regarding secret military detention in Thailand. The risk of enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment significantly increases when detainees are held incommunicado in military custody. The junta continues to refuse to provide information about people in secret detention.
On April 29, Prawet Prapanukul – a prominent human rights lawyer and critic of the monarchy – and five other people were secretly arrested and put in incommunicado military detention for allegedly posting and sharing commentary on Facebook that Thai authorities considered to be offensive to the monarchy. Their whereabouts were unknown for six days until they were transferred to the Police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division and charged with lese majeste, sedition, and computer crimes.
There have been no indications of any serious or credible official inquiry by Thai authorities into reports of torture and mistreatment in military custody. In November 2015, Human Rights Watch submitted a letter to the Thai government raising grave concerns about conditions at the 11th Military Circle Camp, where dissidents have routinely been held. The letter was prompted by the suspicious deaths of a fortune teller, Suriyan Sucharitpolwong, and Police Maj. Prakrom Warunprapa during their detention there.
The use of military courts, which lack independence and fail to comply with international fair trial standards, to try civilians remains a major problem. In September 2016, General Prayuth revoked Announcement 37 and other two NCPO announcements that empowered military courts to try civilians for national security offenses, including lese majeste and sedition. However, the action is not retroactive and does not affect the more than 1,800 cases already brought against civilians in military courts across Thailand.
“With each passing year in power, Thailand’s junta falls deeper into a dictatorship,” Adams said. “Pressure from Thailand’s friends is urgently needed to end repression and restore respect for basic rights that are essential for the country’s return to democratic civilian rule.”