Junta's Public Assembly bill creates petty hindrances to obstruct rallies

The Thai military junta is looking to enact a law to regulate public assemblies which puts in place severe restrictions that can easily lead to an assembly being outlawed and protesters or assembly organizers jailed. The rubber-stamp National Legislative Assembly (NLA) on Thursday passed the first reading of the bill.  
 
In the past ten years, Thai people have seen a large number of demonstrations that ones never been seen before. The anti-establishment red shirts and the pro-establishment yellow-shirts have taken turns disturbing the streets of Bangkok. Protests are usually started in Bangkok’s old town near Government House, but when politicians were able to endure the pressure, they stepped up their activities, causing greater disruptions to life of Bangkokians and others by occupying significant places in Bangkok. The yellow shirt demonstrations in 2008 occupied Bangkok’s main international airport for a week, while the red shirts’ demonstrations in 2010 ended with a shopping mall in one of Bangkok’s shopping districts set on fire. 
 
 
The Thai police have never been able to control crowds. The latest crackdown was carried out by the military in 2010 and ended up with almost 100 people dead.  
 
Jantajira Iammayura, a Thammasat University law lecturer and a member of Nitirat, said the bill does not respect the people’s right to peaceful assembly, guaranteed by Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Thailand is a state party, because it creates petty legal hindrances that would be convenient for making assemblies unlawful.
 
“Technical failures, such as failing to notify the police within the deadline, can overrule the main conditions which are assembling peacefully and without weapons, said Jantajira. “This is absolutely unconstitutional and contradicts the ICCPR.” 
 
Article 21 of the ICCPR reads:
 
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
 
“I give D to this point,” said the academic. “As long as an assembly is peaceful and without weapons, technical problems should not be able to overshadow the right to peaceful assembly, guaranteed by the constitution or the ICCPR.” 
 
Spontaneous rallies likes the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ march, in which thousands of Parisians and heads of state walked the streets of Paris to show support for the Charlie Hebdo magazine after the fatal shooting, will be illegal under the law because the so-called rally leader must notify the authorities of the planned protest at least 24 hours in advance. It can become legal only if the authorities agree to relax this rule. 
 
The law has the following stipulations, which may violate the ICCPR.
  • Organizers of the assembly must “notify” the police about the planned rally, where it will take place and when it will start and end, at least 24 hours before the rally commences.If the assembly organizers want to extend the assembly, they must notify the authorities 24 hours in advance. Otherwise, the rally organizers may ask the authorities to relax the rule. The decision of the authorities is final.
  • Assemblies must not be held within a 150 metre radius of the residences of the King, Queen, Heir Apparent, princes or princesses, or royal visitors. 
  • Assemblies must not be held at Parliament, Government House and the courts, except where space is designated for assemblies. 
  • Assemblies must not obstruct the entrances and exits or disrupt the services and functions of state agencies, airports, harbours, railway stations, transportation stations, hospitals, schools, places of religion, embassies and international organizations. 
  • Amplifier microphones must not be used between midnight and 6 am. No moving assembly is allowed between 6 pm and 6 am. 
  • Microphone amplifiers used in a rally must use electric power under regulations issued by the Royal Thai Police. 
  • Protesters must not disguise themselves, except for traditional costumes. 
  • Protesters must not carry weapons in an assembly, and not trespass, cause damage to property, assault or threaten to assault others, or cause disturbances to others more than can be reasonably anticipated. 
  • Assembly organizers must take responsibility for the assembly being peaceful and weapon-free, to try to control the assembly so as not to affect others more than is appropriate, to inform the protesters of their responsibilities and conditions set out by the authorities, not to instigate violence, and to collaborate with the authorities. 
  • Any march or relocation of an assembly can take place if the authorities are notified in advance. 
 
If an assembly breaks any of the stipulations above, the assembly will be considered “illegal” and the authorities have the right to order the protesters to disperse. 
 
The law stipulates that the commander of the police station responsible for the area where the assembly occurs assumes the powers of the “official responsible for overseeing a public assembly”.  
 
This official has the duty to: facilitate the people who join the assembly and provide safety; facilitate traffic and public transportation in order to minimize the effects of the assembly on other people; publicize the plans for the assembly so that others will know where it will take place and can avoid the area and better choose other traffic routes; close temporarily or rearrange traffic routes. Officers must undergo training and must show understanding and patience toward public assemblies. 
 
Whoever is affected by an assembly can file a complaint at the civil court to issue an order for the assembly to be called off. The court must hold an urgent hearing after receiving a complaint. If the court sees that the assembly is not in accordance with the law, the court can call off the assembly within days, as indicated by the court. The court’s decision is final. 
 
When there is an order to call off an assembly, the police must issue deadline for protesters to leave the venue; if the protesters do not leave the venue within that deadline, the police have the right to arrest and search the protesters as if they have committed an offence red-handed. 
 
The police can also call off an assembly if they find that the assembly is violent in nature and “may cause physical or psychological damage to others or to the property of others to the extent that it leads to chaos.” 
 
Penalties 
  • If a protest is held within a 150 metre radius of palaces, international organizations, and residences of royal visitors, or block entrances and exits to public transportation stations, protesters face jail terms of up to six months. 
  • If an assembly is held without at least 24 hours’ notice to the authorities before the protest commences and the authorities do not relax this rule, or the protest does not end within the agreed period, or moves to another venue without notification to the authorities, the protesters face fines of up to 10,000 baht. 
  • If rally organizers do not cooperate with the authorities, incite violence, give speeches using microphone amplifiers after midnight and use microphones that are too loud, the rally organizers face jail terms of up to six months. 
  • If protesters carry weapons, trespass or damage property, cause harm, threaten others, obstruct the authorities, move the assembly after dark, they face jail terms of up to 10 years. 
  • If an assembly causes temporary or permanent disruption of communication systems, the production or the distribution of electricity, tap water, or other public utilities, the rally organizers face jail terms of up to 10 years. 
  • By defining an assembly as illegal, the police are given the right to order the protesters away, and any protester not leaving the venue is liable to punishment.  This is even more unreasonable and disproportionate, said academic.
  • Jantajira Iammayura pointed out that the failure to comply with petty legal conditions, such as the failure to give 24 hours’ notice, should only carry penalties for the organizers and not turn all protesters into offenders. 
“The protesters may not know if the notification process has been legally correct or successful. Only the rally leaders must be held responsible for any failure,” said Jantajira. 
 
If a protest affects other people’s rights in a disproportionate way, but the rally is still peaceful, without weapon and does not affect the law and order, the rally still should not be declared illegal and dispersed. The police, instead, should have the right to negotiate and mitigate the disproportionate effects, she said.
 
For example, the Bangkok Shutdown campaign by the anti-election People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in early 2014 closed down several intersections in Bangkok with only a handful of protesters and numerous barricades. 
 
Jantajira said the rights to peaceful assembly should still be respected, but the police have the right to interfere in a protest to minimize the occupied space in order to minimize the repercussions on others. 
 
When it comes to laws regulating public assembly, the authorities must execute measures after a case-by-case consideration because each rally has different characteristics and conditions.  Good laws on public assembly should leave room for the authorities to exercise judgement. The bill is, however, written with very rigid legal conditionsม she said.
 
Sriprai Nonsee, a leading member of the Rangsit and Area Labour Union Group, a network of labour unions in Rangsit and nearby districts in central Pathum Thani Province, said the law will be another hindrance to Thai labour’s rights to welfare. 
 
“Rallies and protests are very important to a union. No way can labour get anything without a protest. This bill will obstruct our calls for a better life and welfare.” Sripai said. She believed that in the end this bill will be selectively enforced, especially on the poor. By having to notify about the rally, the planned rally will be obstructed. 
 
Meanwhile, Jittra Cotchadet, former president of Triumph Labor Union, told iLaw that her most serious concern on the bill is the stipulation about 24 hours notice. 
 
"If a factory is closed, and the employees are fired without paying salaries and compensation, we can't notify the authorities about a rally in advance," Jittra gave example. "If we wait for 24 hours, the employers will definitely flee the country or move out all the machines already."