Since the coup of May 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and the military regime of Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, have arrested more than 100 politicians, mostly from the ruling party, activists, journalists, and others accused of supporting the deposed government of Yingluck Shinawatra. While some were released, the army has also ordered several hundred others to report. Those summoned by the military faced arrest and prosecution if they failed to report, and have prohibited from leaving Thailand. Until today, the junta continues to call a number of people to have their “attitude adjusted”.
For the first time in a long while, academics have always been a target. A large number of critical academics, mostly in Thailand, have been ordered to report themselves. For those who reported themselves, they were detained and later released. Some have been charged further, thus there is a prospect of imprisonment. For those who decided not to report themselves, they have run away. Consequently, arrest warrants were issued against them. But there are also many academics whose name was not on the list, yet, they have also been hunted, harassed and detained. Similarly, some of them have decided to run away.
The military has also imposed widespread censorship and other broad restrictions on broadcast, print, and electronic media across the country. It earlier imposed a curfew and still bans public gatherings of more than five people. Basically, the military rule has thrown Thailand’s human rights situation into a free fall. Lately, it threatened to close down the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand should the organizers dare to hold a talk on the draconian lèse-majesté law.
Talking about lèse-majesté law, the military has also exploited it to silence critics of the regime. Lèse-majesté, or the crime of injury to royalty, is defined by Article 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, which states that defamatory, insulting or threatening comments about the king, queen and regent are punishable by three to 15 years in prison. Charges against Thais are usually grave and the investigation and prosecution process is by nature ambiguous. Prosecution has become more pervasive, virtually against anyone now. The manipulation of the lèse-majesté law has severely impacted the human rights cause. Some of those detained have been accused of lèse-majesté and expect to serve a lengthy jail term.
Today, the harassment and detention against the people still continue. Reports that the military is detaining people in unofficial places of detention, such as military camps, raise grave concerns. The military authorities have thus far provided no information about the names and number of detained or their current whereabouts. The risk of torture and ill treatment significantly increases when detainees are held incommunicado in unofficial locations and under the control of the military, which lacks training and experience in law enforcement.
Meanwhile, censorship and other restrictions on media and free expression that began after the coup have intensified. Immediately after the coup, military authorities shut down all TV stations only not long after that allowed them to resume their regular programs. But they have to strictly follow the junta’s order not to air any information critical of the military intervention.
The military has directed print media not to publicize commentaries critical of the military’s actions. TV and radio programs have been instructed not to invite on their programs anyone who might make negative comments about the military or the political situation in the country. Military authorities have told journalists that failure to comply will lead to prosecution.
The junta has invoked censorship against information it considers to be “distorted” or likely to cause “public misunderstanding” in broadcasts, printed publications, on social media, and on websites. Cable and satellite operators were ordered to disconnect their TV links for all international news and entertainment channels. The military also summoned all Internet service providers and ordered them to strictly self-censor content related to the country’s political situation.
In Thailand, not only have human rights of the people been abused during the critical moment like this (in the aftermath of the coup), the violation has indeed been a common phenomenon in the Thai political and social context. Why so? One answer to this is that human rights protection is merely rhetorical. As an academic argues, it reflects Thailand’s long engagement with ideas of constitutional monarchy and good citizenship, a condition quite unlike other Southeast Asian states and demonstrates a compromise but enduring liberal ethos about the nature of power.
Even human rights advocates, some of them, have proved willing to pact with authoritarian elements in the interests of political order. That is why, under so many mechanisms, human rights abuses have accelerated. Human rights in Thailand are subject to the ebbs and flows of political circumstance. The fact that the Human Rights Commission in Thailand has been so much politicized reflects how the issue of human rights has been under a strict control of political elites.
The other reason behind the persistent human rights violation is the culture of impunity in Thailand. And that has been linked up to how Thailand has perceived the nature of power and their place in society. Impunity has driven motivation behind continued violations of rights. How many time political violence has occurred in Thailand? Perhaps since 1973, 1976, 1992, 2010 and 2014. No one has been brought to justice. Coup leaders have never been prosecuted but continued to be praised for their intervention to make Thailand, ironically, more democratic. It has become a self-legitimization for the military to use the coup to explain its behavior especially for the violation of human rights.
The courts have also been politicized. The unwillingness on the part of politicians to deal with past crimes committed by the military demonstrates the political complication in which political benefits are priority, not the rights of the people. At the end, I do not see how human rights situation in Thailand will improve anytime soon. It will take time for future civilian governments to strengthen some democratic institutions that value the protection of human rights.
These future democratic governments will have to exercise their courage to deal with bitter historical past, finding the solution to it, ending the culture of impunity; thus Thailand will be able to move ahead, and become a normal society. Failing to do so will cause so much damage to the already fragile human rights situation in Thailand.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.