In May 2014 Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha stated that he wanted “to create an enabling environment that would facilitate the holding of elections” which “ will be free and fair, so that [it] can become a solid foundation for a complete Thai democracy”.
Unfortunately in practice the human rights situation in Thailand is moving in the opposite direction and every action by the military government seems to have the specific purpose of silencing dissent and eliminating any effective opposition. As a result the safe space in which human rights defenders can work has shrunk dramatically. Recent proposals to merge the National Human Rights Commission with the office of the Ombudsman and to extend to three months the period for which civilians can be held without charge by the army, are just the latest turns of the screw on an already beleaguered human rights community.
Three days after the coup on 24 May 2014 the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, issued order number 37, which replaces civilian courts with military tribunals for; crimes in the Thai Penal Code against the King, the Queen, the Heir to the Throne and the Regent under articles 107 to 112: Crimes against internal security under articles 113 to 118: Any crimes notified by order of the NCPO. As it stands, any meeting of more than 5 people to discuss political issues is banned while public statements or comment critical of government policy can result in the offender being called in by the army for “attitude adjustment”.
Print and broadcast media have been instructed not to publish articles critical of the government policy while more than 200 web sites have been blocked. Under these restrictions the military has arbitrarily detained hundreds of civilians and tried many in military courts. in violation of international law those held have been denied access to lawyers and family members. The NCPO has disregarded and refused to seriously investigate detainees’ allegations of torture and ill-treatment. This hardly constitutes an enabling environment or even the beginnings of “complete Thai democracy”.
Human rights defenders from around the country whose communities have been affected by large scale mining projects gathered recently to discuss the shrinking space for their human rights work. The human rights community in Bangkok, now joined by students, opposition politicians, academics and journalists, is preoccupied with political reform and the constitution. Human rights defenders working on land rights or environmental protection in rural communities feel more marginalised and vulnerable than ever before.
Before the coup local elected officials were to some extent willing to act as mediators between big business and the local community. Now soldiers are increasingly being brought in to remove barricades and protestors who object to proposed mining projects which are planned on the basis of flawed environmental impact studies, or lack of meaningful consultation without imput from the community. Big business and the army work hand in hand while the army targets those HRDs who speak out on behalf of the villagers.
On 15 August 2014, gold-mining company Tung Kha Limited Company (TKL Company) filed a criminal suit against community leaders accusing them of “damaging the company's reputation”. The fact that villagers may have to travel to Bangkok for a court hearing is an additional form of harassment. This experience is replicated all over the country. Meanwhile for those human rights defenders who voice a political opinion, the response is even more rapid and violent.
On 3 November 2014 twelve civil society organisations and seventeen individual human rights defenders issued a joint statement declaring their opposition to the reform process initiated by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). On 4 November 2014, the Second Thai Army summoned the human rights defenders for interrogation. Many were summoned over the phone and complied with the Army's demand that they present themselves for interrogation. However, in some cases soldiers and state officials were sent to the homes of the human rights defenders to bring them to the military camps. The military authorities questioned the human rights defenders about their reasons for issuing the statement and prior to being released, they were forced to sign a document obliging them to discontinue any anti-coup activities and to present themselves immediately if summoned by the military again. By signing the document, the human rights defenders also stated that they are aware that they will be prosecuted under martial law if they continue their activism against the military authorities. Since then levels of violence against human rights defenders have escalated further.
On 11 February 2015, at approximately 6:30 pm, land rights defender Mr Chai Bunthonglek was shot and killed at his home in Chaiburi District, Surat Thani Province, by an unknown man. Chai Bunthonglek was a member of the Southern Peasants' Federation of Thailand, SPFT supports the Permsub Community in a land dispute involving Thai Boonthong, an oil palm company. Officially, the disputed land belongs to the Agricultural Land Reform Office (ARLO), which in 2009 allowed the villagers to remain on the land until the resolution of the dispute. The company continues to occupy the land and the villagers are at ongoing risk of forced eviction.
Chai Bunthonglek is the fourth member of SPFT who has been killed as a result of their human rights activities. The killings and ongoing persecution of human rights defenders in Thailand is creating a climate of fear and violence which can only destabilise the country further .
About the author -- Sayeed Ahmad is Protection Coordinator for Asia with Dublin based international human rights organisation Front Line Defenders.