Rampant human rights violations continue despite the end of the NCPO regime, says TLHR

On the occasion of the 6th anniversary of the 22 May 2014 military coup, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) launched a new report on Thailand’s human rights situation As if the NCPO Never Left: Six Years after the Coup and the Persistence of Human Rights Violations, highlighting ongoing violations of freedom of expression and freedom of association which have persisted since the end of the NCPO regime.

According to the report, “the network of powerful political actors established under the NCPO regime has remained intact as they underwent a successful power inheritance,” as the Constitution as well as legal and political mechanisms designed by the NCPO “ensure it remains its tight grip on power and maintains the army’s pervasive political influence.”

TLHR says that one of the important and long-lasting legacies of the NCPO is the institutionalization and systematization of human rights violations, as its five-year rule was “particularly characterized by widespread human rights abuses, especially by weaponizing the law,” which continues even after the elected government took office in 2019, albeit in slightly changed forms.

The report notes that, in the year after the official end of the NCPO regime, activists and opposition politicians continue to be harassed and visited at home by the authorities – a tactic used by government officials against activists and opposition politicians and “one of the most dominant forms of human rights violations … during the NCPO regime.” TLHR recorded at least 191 cases of people receiving such visits or threats from officials, including student activists who were involved with the wave of anti-government protests at the beginning of 2020. TLHR recorded at least 22 cases of students involved with the series of demonstrations in universities across the country in late February 2020 being threatened by the authorities. 

TLHR also observed that “local police officers are increasingly taking a dominant role in conducting the home visits”, replacing military officers, and that the intensity of surveillance and house visits increases before important social events, such as the 2019 ASEAN Summit meeting in Bangkok and the Royal Coronation ceremonies in May and December 2019. 

“TLHR, therefore, regards these operations as a state-led campaign of intimidation and harassment, which violates the people's rights to freedom of expression. Since the coup d'état, this kind of harassment has been occurring so often that it has become normalized,” says the report.

TLHR notes the significant decline of cases filed and prosecuted under Article 112, Thailand’s lèse majesté law, since the beginning of King Vajiralongkorn’s reign. However, it also found that critics of the monarchy are now subjected to intimidation and legal prosecution under other laws, including the Computer Crimes Act and the sedition law, or Article 116 of the Criminal Code, and that charges of lèse majesté are increasingly being dismissed, with defendants being convicted instead on other charges. Public prosecutors and judges also “tend to avoid pressing charges or prosecuting any person under the lèse-majesté law.”

TLHR recorded that at least 124 people, mostly protest leaders and critics of the NCPO, have been charged with sedition during the NCPO regime, while 21 people have been charged with sedition in 12 cases after the end of the NCPO regime, with many of these cases being filed against citizens who wore black t-shirts in public on 5 December 2018 and who were accused of being affiliated with an organization known as the Thai Federation.

TLHR also notes that, from July 2019 to April 2020, at least 42 people have been charged under the Computer Crimes Act “for expressing their opinions or publishing certain information online,” 37 of whom were accused of sharing “fake news” and 28 allegedly sharing misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. In many Computer Crime cases directed against critics of the NCPO, the public prosecutor ordered a non-indictment, and these cases “demonstrate how the NCPO and the army are using the Computer Crimes Act as a weapon to target influential public figures who vocally criticize their abusive exercise of power.”

Other than the threat of legal prosecutions, critics of the monarchy have also been subjected to “arbitrary detention and intimidation and harassment by state officials,” including many social media users who post about the monarchy.

Niranam, a 20-year-old Twitter user, was charged under the Computer Crimes Act for posting about King Vajiralongkorn, while another Twitter user under the handle @99CEREAL was taken from their university to the Klong Luang Police Station in Pathum Thani without a warrant or summons, with no lawyer present, interrogated and forced to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) requiring them to stop expressing their opinion about the monarchy on Twitter again before being released.

There are also reports of the authorities surveilling movie theatres and targeting those who refuse to stand for the royal anthem before a movie, taking down people’s personal information and pictures of their ID cards. Some media channels have also been exposing the personal information of people who expressed opinions about the monarchy, leading to cases of doxing and witch-hunts. A participant at a protest in December 2019 was attacked online and fired from her job at the television channel MONO29 after her picture and profile was posted on the Facebook page of the right-wing media site TNews, because a picture of her holding a protest sign with a painting of King Bhumibol on the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre building in the background was circulated on the internet.

TLHR also noted that the law and the justice system have been weaponized and used to silence dissidents and political opponents, a tactic which “has been widely used to violate human rights from the beginning of the NCPO regime to the present.”

From 2019 – 2020, opposition politicians became the main target of judicial harassment, especially the Future Forward Party (FFP). Many FFP executives face criminal charges for exercising their freedom of expression, while the party itself was eventually dissolved in February 2020.

Using the law to suppress criticism has also become a common practice for the army, independent organizations, private companies, courts, and foundations, often using the laws on criminal defamation. The courts also often used contempt of court charges against critics, while companies like Thammakaset have filed dozens of lawsuits against their critics.

“This manner of weaponizing the law can be considered a strategic lawsuit against public participation or SLAPP. It affects the rights and liberties of the people to criticize, present alternative information, and investigate the government's exercise of power. Should this kind of human rights violation continue, it would discourage people from speaking out in the public interest,” says the report.

Meanwhile, the government continues to use the Public Assembly Act to infringe on freedom of association. Although the restrictions were slightly relaxed, public assemblies are still subjected to “stringent legal requirements,” including having to notify the authorities at least 24 hours before a protest, and to “the state’s abusive supervision.”

TLHR observed that, from 17 September 2019 – 30 April 2020, government officials intervened in at least 42 public assemblies, resulting in the cancellation of 14 events, while at least 28 protest organizers have been charged under the Public Assembly Act. Authorities also intervened in academic and cultural activities in order to “discourage public dialogue that might be critical of the regime,” not only using the Public Assembly Act but also by pressuring the organizers, forcing them to change the venue, guest speakers, or formats, and subjecting them to surveillance throughout the activity. From 17 September 2019 to 30 April 2020, there were at least 55 reports of state attempts to shut down or intervene in public activities.

And while court cases are being transferred from military courts to civilian courts, TLHR says that the current government is still putting civilians in military prisons, making it difficult to lawyers to reach their clients. Lawyers are also subjected to strict screening procedures which limit the right to a fair trial and the right to defend oneself in court to full capacity. Many prisoners also reported that they have been tortured and put in solitary confinement while in military prison.

Many of the orders and announcements issued by the NCPO are also still in effect and continue to be used to restrict people’s rights and liberties under the new government, including the Head of NCPO Order No. 23/2558, which allows military officers to “arrest and detain a drug offender for preliminary interrogation for up to three days,” and the Head of NCPO Orders No. 3/2558 and No. 13/2559, which “grant military officers sweeping and unchecked powers to interrogate, arrest, and detain a person in an unofficial detention facility for up to seven days.”

Among the NCPO’s important legacies is also the large number of people who remain political prisoners, and those who fled overseas and are still unable to return to Thailand. According to TLHR, at least 28 political prisoners remain imprisoned, while 104 are still living in “self-imposed exile after fleeing the persecution of the NCPO and its orders.” There are also at least 6 reported cases of potential enforced disappearance among the political refugees living overseas.

“Almost one year has passed since the NCPO's regime ended. Nevertheless, human rights violations through the exercise of state powers persists [sic] in Thai society,” says TLHR, who made the following recommendations for addressing the NCPO’s legacy:

1. Limit the power of the army and reform the security sector

2. Reform the justice system and guarantee access to justice

3. Provide remedies for the damages inflicted on people affected by the 2014 coup d’état

4. Revoke all NCPO orders and announcements, laws passed by the NLA, and verdicts endorsing the NCPO's legitimacy.

“TLHR believes that these issues must be pushed further to end the legal and political structure that supports the culture of impunity for those who staged the coup. We must create a new system that prevents abuses of state power, restores democracy, and establishes the rule of law in Thailand,” the report concludes.