Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, January 17, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom
(New York) – Thailand’s junta should immediately end restrictions on the right to free expression so that credible national elections can be held on February 24, 2019, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 11, 2018, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) lifted its prohibition on public gatherings and political activities, allowing political parties to conduct election campaigns for parliament. However, the junta kept in place military orders restricting expression and authorizing detention and prosecution for speech critical of the junta, its policies and actions, and the monarchy. All criminal cases in military and civilian courts related to opposition to military rule will proceed.

“Thailand can’t hold credible elections when political parties, the media, and voters are gagged by threats of arrest and criminal prosecution,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “With polling day just two months away, the Thai junta should immediately lift all legal orders that restrict the right to freedom of expression.”

Since the May 2014 military coup, Thailand’s junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinions to constitute disinformation, seditious acts, and threats to national security. For more than four years, the junta has routinely enforced media censorship and blocked public discussions about human rights and democracy. On December 1, Thai authorities blocked access to the Human Rights Watch Thailand webpage, alleging that the contents were inappropriate and constituted a “national security threat.”

For more than four years under military rule, Thai authorities have prosecuted hundreds of activists and dissidents on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for peaceful expression of their views. Since the beginning of 2018, more than 100 pro-democracy activists have been prosecuted for peacefully demanding the junta to hold the promised elections without further delay and to lift all restrictions on fundamental freedoms.

In August, the leader of the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was charged with violating the Computer-Related Crime Act, which could result in a five-year prison term, for online commentary criticizing the junta. Watana Muangsook, former Social Development and Human Security Minister, and other key members of the Pheu Thai Party have also been repeatedly charged with sedition and computer-related crimes for making comments, including on social media, opposing military rule.

Local human rights and political activists expressed concern to Human Rights Watch that independent monitoring of elections will not be possible under current conditions. Thai authorities frequently retaliate with criminal charges, including for criminal defamation and Computer-Related Crime Act violations, against anyone who reports allegations of state-sponsored abuses and official misconduct. The junta forcibly blocked efforts to monitor the constitutional referendum in 2016 and prosecuted many people involved in such activities.

Thailand’s upcoming elections will be held while Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha still maintains unchecked and unaccountable powers, including for human rights violations, that will remain in place until a new government is formed. The junta-appointed Senate and other elements of the 2017 constitution will ensure prolonged military control even after elections are held.

After the 2014 coup, the United States, European Union, and many other countries set conditions for their normalization of relations with Thailand. These included holding free and fair elections to establish a democratic civilian government and improved respect for human rights. For the February elections to be a genuine democratic process, Thailand’s friends should press the junta to:

  • End the use of abusive, unaccountable powers under sections 44 and 48 of the 2014 interim constitution;
  • End restrictions on the right to freedom of expression;
  • Ensure that political parties and supporters are able to freely participate in peaceful election campaign activities;
  • Free everyone detained for peaceful criticism of the government;
  • Drop all sedition charges and other criminal lawsuits related to peaceful opposition to military rule;
  • Transfer all remaining civilian cases still in military courts to civilian courts that meet international fair trial standards;
  • Ensure a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders to work, including by dropping politically motivated lawsuits and strategic lawsuits against public participation against them; and
  • Permit independent and impartial election observers to freely monitor the election campaign and the conduct of the elections, and to issue public reports.

“The junta’s half-step to relax its chokehold on fundamental freedoms is inadequate,” Adams said. “Foreign governments seeking the restoration of democracy in Thailand should publicly state that they will only recognize an election that meets international standards.”