JAKARTA – The Thai military authorities must withdraw restrictions on freedom of expression to pave the way for a genuinely free and open election campaign, lawmakers from Southeast Asia said today as the date for Thailand’s general election was announced.
The Election Commission today announced that the polling day would be 24 March 2019, after the government had issued a royal decree earlier today formally pronouncing the elections. It will be the first democratic vote in Thailand since the military seized power in a coup d’état in May 2014.
“Today’s announcement of an election date in Thailand is both welcome and long over-due. But the climate in the country is still not conducive for a free and fair election – the junta must now remove all remaining draconian limits on freedom of expression. Unless political parties are allowed to campaign without fear of retaliation, voters will not be able exercise their democratic right and make an informed choice at the ballot box,” said Charles Santiago, Chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a sitting MP from Malaysia.
“It is equally crucial that the authorities allow election observers, both foreign and domestic, to access the polls. This will strengthen both the credibility and transparency of the vote.
On 11 December 2018, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) lifted some restrictions on political activities, including a ban on gatherings of five or more people. The junta, however, kept in place military orders allowing the arbitrary detention and prosecution of anyone criticizing the military or the monarchy.
Section 44 of the interim constitution, which grants NCPO leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha unlimited powers to unilaterally issue military orders, remains in force, raising the prospect of further restrictions on human rights.
In addition, the military authorities have relied on a range of repressive laws – including the Computer Crimes Act, the lèse majesté law, and sections of the Criminal Code – to slap trumped-up charges on scores of individuals who have done nothing but peacefully voice their opinions. Over the past months, there have been persistent reports of intelligence agencies visiting activists and others to warn them off taking part in pro-democracy activities.
The Southeast Asian parliamentarians also expressed concern over the fact the junta has guaranteed itself a dominant role in Thai politics for years, regardless of the election outcome. Under the new constitution introduced in 2017, the military will have the power to appoint all 250 members of the upper house, while six seats have already been reserved for senior security force personnel.
A 20-year national strategy plan, passed by the unelected National Legislative Assembly last year, effectively binds future elected leaders to a political framework and non-compliance could result in the removal of office or imprisonment.
“The past almost five years of military rule have been a human rights calamity, with the military authorities silencing debate and jailing critics with impunity. The junta has also effectively been campaigning,” said Charles Santiago.
“Even if an election takes place, it will take many years to unravel the web of legal and other restrictions on civil and political rights this military regime has shackled the country with. The Thai people have a right to map out their own future free of military interference.”