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Thailand: Drop Charges, Free Democracy Activists

Authorities Disregard Own Pledge to Allow Dissent

(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately drop all charges and unconditionally release prominent pro-democracy activists arbitrarily detained for their role in peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 19, 2020, Thai police separately arrested Arnon Nampha, Baramee Chairat, Suwanna Tanlek, and Korakot Saengyenphan, charged them with sedition and other offenses, and jailed them.

“The Thai government’s repeated promises to listen to dissenting voices have proven meaningless as the crackdown on pro-democracy activists continues unabated,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The authorities should right their wrong and immediately drop the charges and release Arnon and other detained activists.”

Police arrested Arnon, a defense lawyer with the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, outside the Bangkok Criminal Court after he finished his day’s cases. He was charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, assembly with an intent to cause violence, violating the ban on public gatherings, and other criminal offenses related to his involvement in a pro-democracy protest in Bangkok on August 3. At the protest, he wore a Harry Potter costume and publicly demanded reforms to bring Thailand’s monarchy into conformance with democratic constitutional principles. The police detained him at the Chanasongkram Police Station in Bangkok.

Three other activists – including Baramee from the Assembly of the Poor in Bangkok, Suwanna from the June 24 for Democracy Movement, and Korakot from the Democracy Restoration Group – also face sedition and other charges similar to those brought against Arnon. They have been detained at Bangkok’s Samranrat Police Station.

The police previously arrested Arnon on similar charges together with another pro-democracy activist, Panupong Jadnok, on August 7. A week later, on August 14, the police arrested a well-known student leader, Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak, bringing similar accusations.

These six activists are among 31 people whom the police were purportedly seeking to arrest for speaking onstage at a protest sponsored by the Free Youth Movement in Bangkok on July 18. Since the Free Youth Movement held that peaceful protest in front of the Democracy Monument demanding democracy, political reforms, and respect for human rights, youth-led protests by various groups have spread across in Thailand. The largest protest was in Bangkok on August 16, with more than 20,000 participants calling for the dissolution of parliament, a new constitution, respect for freedom of expression, and reforms of the institution of the monarchy to curb the current monarch’s powers.

Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has denied that he ordered the police to arrest the activists and has maintained his pledge to listen to the youth protests. “There has been no order from the prime minister to target those activists,” General Prayuth said during a media interview on August 15. “The police simply use their own judgment and carry out their duty to uphold the law. In the current situation all sides should be reasonable and listen [to each other]. We need to avoid provocation and confrontation.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. However, Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views.

Government repression has intensified in Thailand over the past five months as the authorities used state of emergency powers assumed by the government to help control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government protests and harass pro-democracy activists.

International pressure is urgently needed to press the Thai government to end the crackdown on pro-democracy activists and peaceful protests, and release those arbitrarily detained, Human Rights Watch said. 

“The United Nations and concerned governments should speak out publicly against the rolling political repression in Thailand,” Adams said. “Thai youth are increasingly demanding real progress toward democracy and the rule of law so they can freely express their visions for the future of the country.”

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