On February 18, the world that watches the BBC saw a grenade thrown at police at Phan Fa bridge which a police officer unsuccessfully (but ‘heretically’, according to a PDRC tweet and I hope that’s just a blooper and he meant ‘heroically’) tried to kick away.
On February 19, the Thai Civil Court demonstrated that it doesn’t watch TV, or at least not those despicably biased western TV channels. In response to a case filed by the PDRC against government attempts to disperse the numerous (and now at times virtually empty) protest sites, the court ruled in favour of the protestors.
The Emergency Decree, said the court, does not give the government the authority to remove the barricades, evict protestors from buildings (including, it seems, official ones where they have no business and have themselves evicted the rightful occupants), reclaim public thoroughfares, or even ban gatherings. This is because such actions would violate the constitutional right to freedom of assembly.
Now the court did take notice of the fact that Article 63 of the Constitution protects ‘the liberty to assemble peacefully and without arms’ and commented on the ‘peacefully and without arms’ bit. It said that the current protests, grenades and Tavors inside popcorn bags notwithstanding, were indeed conducted ‘peacefully and without arms’.
After all, the Constitutional Court had ruled a week earlier that things like physically preventing people from voting, occupying or blockading government buildings or threatening the media might be criminal but they were not unconstitutional.
Article 63 does not, as you might think from this ruling, give carte blanche to peaceful protests. It reads ‘the restriction on such liberty … shall not be imposed except by virtue of the provision of the law in the case of public assembling and for securing public convenience in the use of public places or for maintaining public order during the time when the country is in a state of war or when a state of emergency or martial law is declared.’
A state of emergency has been declared (under almost exactly the same terms as in 2010 when roles were reversed). So this seems to mean that the constitutional ‘right to assemblage’ can be constitutionally restricted.
But not here and not now.
How about before now?
In April 2010, in one of its first orders under the Emergency Decree of the time, the CRES (the CMPO of its day, headed by a certain Suthep Thaugsuban) greatly honoured the influence of this newspaper by peremptorily shutting it down.
On 23 April, Prachatai filed a lawsuit with the Civil Court against the Prime Minister (Abhisit Vejjajiva), his Deputy (Suthep Thaugsuban), the Minister of Information and Communications Technology (Ranongrak Suwanchawee and you’d forgotten about the nurse who married the politician, hadn’t you? I wonder if she’s on the barricades), her Ministry, and the Ministry of Finance
The suit claimed that the government was violating the constitutional right to freedom of expression of the media. It asked for an injunction against the blocking of the website and 350,000 baht in damages (listen, the bottom line is a perennial problem here, we’ll take money wherever we can get it).
At first things seemed to be moving quite positively. Prachatai was told to get its witnesses lined up and ready to be examined that afternoon. But then, after kicking their heels for a few hours, they were sent home, unexamined.
That evening, the court ruled to dismiss the case. And why?
Well, said the ruling, the right to a free media was not absolutely protected by the Constitution (just like the right to freedom of assembly is not absolutely protected). There was a get-out clause that did allow banning a news outlet if there was a security law about it (just like the right to freedom of assembly can be banned). And there was such a law, the Emergency Decree, and so Prachatai could remain banned (and could go and whistle for the 350,000).
There wasn’t any argy-bargy about whether Prachatai had been offensive in any way, just as the PDRC protests are not, so the court says, offending anyone by their actions (shooting, grenade throwing, turfing civil servants out of their workplaces and padlocking the gates), inactions (blocking candidates, voters and ballot boxes, blocking traffic and shops) or words (the provocative spewing of hate speech from PDRC stage-hoggers who should know better). And the Prachatai case was taken to appeal.
But as a double standard that’s hard to beat, eh?
About author: Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).