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Events of 2023

Thai human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa raises a three-fingers salute on arrival at the criminal court prior to being convicted of “insulting the monarchy” and sentenced to four years in prison, in Bangkok, Thailand, September 26, 2023.

© 2023 AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit

Thailand held a general election on May 14, 2023, under flawed and unfair constitutional and legal frameworks put in place by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) military junta. The reformist Move Forward Party (MFP) won the largest number of seats, but the military-appointed Senate led efforts that effectively blocked it from forming a government.

Srettha Thavisin of the runner-up Pheu Thai Party then formed a ruling coalition that included parties from the previous government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha. Even though the new government pledged to promote and protect human rights, impunity for abuses continued unabated. Authorities continued to restrict fundamental rights—particularly freedom of expression and peaceful assembly—and prosecuted human rights and democracy activists, community advocates, environmental defenders, and critics of the monarchy.

General Election, Attacks on Move Forward Party, and New Government

Thailand’s general election occurred within the framework of the 2017 constitution written at the behest of the NCPO junta created after the military coup in 2014. A majority of the lower house nominates a candidate for prime minister, but with the 250 unelected members of the Senate and the 500-seat lower house voting, a candidate requires 376 votes, a majority of the combined 750 assembly seats, to become prime minister. The MFP won 151 parliamentary seats but was rejected by most members of the Senate and MPs from the previous government, who claimed the party’s proposal to amend penal code article 112, the royal defamation (lèse-majesté) law, amounted to an attempt to overthrow the monarchy.

The Constitutional Court decided on July 12 to hear a case against the MFP on whether their policy position to reform article 112 constitutes treason. A court decision was still pending at time of writing, but a ruling against the party could result in its dissolution and criminal prosecution of its leaders. MFP party executives could also be banned from politics for life.

In July, the Constitutional Court suspended MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat from parliamentary duties pending a ruling on allegations that he violated electoral rules for holding shares in the iTV media company, even though the company has not broadcast for 15 years and was removed from listing on the Stock Exchange of Thailand in 2014.

In September, the Supreme Court banned former Future Forward Party (predecessor party of the MFP) spokesperson and former MP Pannika Wanich from running for political office or holding any political post for the rest of her life because she posted a photo online when she was a college student that the court found disrespectful to the monarchy.

Prime Minister Srettha repeatedly announced commitments to promote and protect human rights, including in his speeches to the Thai parliament on September 11, 2023 and the United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2023. But the Pheu Thai Party-led government has stated it will not seek to amend Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté law to align with international human rights standards and will continue such prosecutions. Srettha also announced that the government-initiated constitutional amendment will leave out demands for monarchy reforms.

Freedoms of Expression and Peaceful Assembly

As of September 2023, at least 1,928 people had been prosecuted since July 2020 for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful public assembly, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights. At least 286 of those charged were children.

Thai authorities continued to use Criminal Code article 112 on lèse-majesté, which includes punishments of up to 15 years in prison for each offense. In 2023, authorities prosecuted at least 258 people in relation to various activities undertaken at democracy protests or comments made on social media on lèse-majesté charges. Thai authorities used the vague, overbroad Computer-Related Crimes Act and Criminal Code article 116 on sedition to prosecute democracy activists and dissidents. 

The government has routinely held outspoken critics of the monarchy in pretrial detention for months. Courts granted bail to some, albeit with restrictive conditions, such as full or partial house arrest, being required to wear tracking devices, or being prohibited from speaking about the monarchy, taking part in political rallies, or traveling overseas. As of September 2023, the government held at least 35 activists in pretrial detention for participating in democracy protests or committing acts that authorities considered to be offensive to the monarchy.

After the Prayut government ordered nationwide enforcement of the “Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation” in March 2020 ostensibly to control the spread of Covid-19, authorities prosecuted at least 1,469 people, primarily for taking part in democracy protests. Police and prosecutors brought charges such as violating social distancing measures, curfew restrictions, and other disease control measures. Most of these legal cases were not revoked after the emergency measures were lifted on October 1, 2022. Violations of the Emergency Decree bring possible penalties of up to two years in prison, or a 40,000 Thai baht (about US$1,080) fine, or both.

Torture, Ill-Treatment, and Enforced Disappearances

Thailand is a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and has also signed, but still not ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

On August 24, 2022, the House of Representatives approved and passed the Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance Bill. The law became effective on February 22, 2023. However, the government has yet to effectively enforce the law or resolve outstanding cases.

Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases related to counterinsurgency operations in Thailand’s southern border provinces in which police and military personnel tortured ethnic Malay Muslims in custody. There are also credible reports of torture being used as a form of punishment for Thai military conscripts. During the five years of NCPO military rule after the 2014 coup, many people taken into incommunicado military custody alleged that soldiers tortured or otherwise ill-treated them during their detention and interrogation.

In highly publicized cases with incontrovertible evidence, justice at times was done. On June 8, 2022, the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases sentenced Pol. Col. Thitisant Utthanaphon to life in prison for torturing to death a suspected drug trafficker in Nakhon Sawan province in August 2021.

But other prosecutions were flawed. On September 28, the Central Criminal Court for Corruption and Misconduct Cases acquitted four forestry officials suspected of abducting and murdering ethnic Karen activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongchareon in April 2014. They were only punished with a three-year prison term for dereliction of duties: failing to report Billy’s arrest (on a charge of illegal possession of wild honey) and not taking him to the police station. Billy’s family and civil society groups pointed to shoddy police work in the investigation as the primary reason the more serious charges failed.

Since 1980, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 76 cases of enforced disappearance in Thailand. In recent years, at least nine dissidents who fled persecution in Thailand were forcibly disappeared in neighboring countries. In September 2021, the Working Group raised concerns in its annual report about enforced disappearances in the context of transnational transfers between Thailand and neighboring countries.

Attacks on Human Rights Defenders

The government failed to fulfill its obligation to ensure human rights defenders can carry out their work in a safe and enabling environment.

Cover-up actions, manifested in the form of poor police work and lack of willingness to pursue evidence in the case, effectively blocked efforts to prosecute soldiers who shot dead ethnic Lahu youth activist Chaiyaphum Pasae in broad daylight at a checkpoint in March 2017 in Chiang Mai province.

The police made no progress in investigating violent attacks in 2019 targeting prominent democracy activists Sirawith Seritiwat, Anurak Jeantawanich, and Ekachai Hongkangwan.

Officials regularly intimidated and threatened democracy activists and human rights defenders in Bangkok and other provinces to stop them from organizing or participating in protests, especially during the visits by cabinet ministers or members of the royal family.

Despite the adoption of Thailand’s National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights in 2019, Thai authorities failed to protect human rights defenders from reprisals and end the abusive use of strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). Former National Human Rights Commissioner and Magsaysay Award winner Angkhana Neelapaijit is one of the many activists hit with such retaliatory lawsuits.

Lack of Accountability for State-Sponsored Abuses

On August 22, the Civil Court ordered the police to pay 3 million baht (about US$81,000) in compensation to democracy activist Tanat Thanakitamnuay, who lost his sight in one eye after a police officer shot him with a teargas canister while dispersing an August 13, 2021 rally. But there has been little progress in other cases alleging abuse and excessive use of force by riot police to disperse other democracy rallies in 2020-2023.

Despite overwhelming evidence that soldiers were responsible for most casualties during the 2010 political confrontations with the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, known as the “Red Shirts,” which left at least 99 dead and more than 2,000 injured, there has been no action against military personnel or government officials who ordered and carried out the crackdown.

There has been no progress in pursuing criminal investigations of extrajudicial killings related to anti-drug operations, especially the more than 2,800 killings that accompanied then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s “war on drugs” in 2003.

Violence and Abuses in the Southern Border Provinces

The armed conflict in Thailand’s Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, and Songkhla provinces, which has resulted in more than 7,000 deaths since January 2004, subsided in the first half of 2023 following an announcement by the Thai military and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) that both would seek to reduce violence during Ramadan. However, since August, insurgent attacks on military targets and civilians increased despite ongoing dialogue between government representatives and the BRN.

The government has continually failed to prosecute members of its security forces responsible for torture, unlawful killings, and other abuses of ethnic Malay Muslims. In many cases, Thai authorities have provided financial compensation to the victims or their families in exchange for their agreement not to speak out against the security forces or file criminal cases against officials.

Thailand has not endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration. Meanwhile, the BRN has continued to recruit children for insurgent activities.

Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrant Workers

Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 protocol. However, customary international law prohibiting refoulement and Thailand’s Anti-Torture law prevent people from being forcibly returned to a place where they likely could face persecution, torture, or other forms of ill-treatment.

Despite the lack of effective protections, Thailand hosts a large number of refugees and migrant workers. The authorities continue to treat asylum seekers as illegal migrants subject to arrest and deportation. As a matter of official policy, authorities refuse to allow Lao Hmong, ethnic Rohingya and Uyghurs, and people from Myanmar and North Korea to be considered for refugee status. In September 2023, the government launched a new National Screening Mechanism to identify asylum seekers and potentially offer them protection, but details about implementation of the new mechanism were not available as time of writing.

Thai authorities have violated the customary international legal prohibition against refoulement by returning refugees and asylum seekers to countries where they are likely to face persecution, particularly to neighboring countries like Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and China.

Thai authorities have made no progress in investigating the apparent abduction and, in some cases, killing of exiled dissidents from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos in Thailand during the 2014-2023 period. On April 13, 2023, Vietnamese refugee Thai Van Duong was abducted off the street in Pathum Thani province, likely by people working at the behest of Vietnam, and forced back to Vietnam where he is now in jail facing charges in Hanoi. On May 17, 2023, unknown persons shot and killed Free Lao group leader and refugee Bounsuan Kitiyano in Ubon Ratchatani province.

Thailand is holding approximately 50 Uyghurs and several hundred Rohingya in indefinite detention in squalid conditions in immigration detention centers, without adequate food or access to medicine. Some of these individuals have been held for as long as a decade. Two Uyghurs—Mattohti Mattursun and Aziz Abdullah—died in 2023 of health problems in the Suan Phlu immigration detention center in Bangkok.

Despite government-instituted reforms in the fishing industry, many migrant workers still face forced labor, remain in debt bondage to recruiters, cannot change employers, and receive sub-minimum wages that are paid months late. The government has recently made promises to fishing boat owners that would further erode labor protections for workers in the sector.

Thai authorities failed to adequately protect internationally recognized worker rights, such as the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Union busting continued in industrial areas, and union leaders faced harassment and dismissal by hostile employers. Non-Thai workers are barred by provisions in the Labor Relations Act 1975 from organizing and establishing labor unions or serving as a government recognized labor union leader.

Gender Inequality

While Thailand enacted the Gender Equality Act in 2015, implementation remains piecemeal, though several court cases have been brought by transgender people.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, on November 21, 2023, the Cabinet approved in principle a draft law on marriage equality and said it would introduce the legislation into Parliament in December. While the draft law was not publicly available at time of writing, it is expected to contain elements of two draft laws—the Life Partnership Bill and the Equal Marriage Bill—that were under consideration by the previous government. If enacted, such a law would make Thailand the first country in Southeast Asia to legally recognize same-sex couples.

Key International Actors

Thailand and the EU started negotiations on a free trade agreement in March, aiming to reach a deal by 2025. The importance of taking up issues of human rights and labor rights in the context of those negotiations is being emphasized by Thai and international civil society groups.

The US, European Union and its member states, and other countries tightened their relationships with Thailand after the Srettha government took office.

On September 22, Prime Minister Srettha announced at the UN General Assembly that Thailand would stand for election to the Human Rights Council (HRC) for the 2025-2027 term despite ongoing and unresolved concerns raised by states and rights groups during Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Thailand at the HRC in November 2022.