The Thai government’s extension of its state of emergency is an apparent pretext for violating basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 26, 2020, the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha extended the draconian Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation until June 30.
A sign on the metal fence in front of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre says "activities are prohibited according to the 2005 Emergency Decree." It had been placed there in anticipation of a commemoration event on the 6th anniversary of the 2014 military coup. (Source: Museum of the Commonners)
Since the state of emergency was declared on March 24 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has stifled dissenting voices and critical opinions. Thai authorities have shut down criticism from the media, healthcare workers, and the general public about their response to the pandemic, using both the Emergency Decree and the Computer-Related Crime Act’s “anti-fake news” provisions. The decree grants officials immunity from prosecution for any human rights violations they commit.
“The Emergency Decree provides Thai authorities unchecked powers to suppress fundamental freedoms with zero accountability,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.“There is no legitimate basis for extending this decree, which allows for the arbitrary and disproportionate restriction of rights guaranteed under international law and the Thai constitution.”
In March, the government issued a list of prohibitions under the state of emergency, including vague and overbroad restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom that could be enforced by prosecution: “Reporting or spreading of information regarding COVID-19 which is untrue and may cause public fear, as well as deliberate distortion of information which causes misunderstanding and hence affects peace and order, or good moral of people, are prohibited.”
International human rights law recognizes that in the context of a serious public health emergency, restrictions on some rights can be justified when they are strictly necessary, proportionate to achieve the objective, and are neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application. On March 16, a group of United Nations human rights experts said “Emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals. It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health … and should not be used simply to quash dissent.”
In crisis situations, international law allows authorities to exceptionally limit speech that could endanger public health. However, access to information and freedom of expression are among the integral components of the right to health, especially during a global pandemic. Access to information includes the right to seek, receive, and share informationabout the health risks and the government’s response.
Thai authorities have brought retaliatory lawsuits and sought to intimidate whistleblowers in the public health sector and online journalists after they reported alleged corruption related to hoarding of surgical masks and other supplies and black-market profiteering. Thai authorities also threatened some medical staff with disciplinary action, including terminating employment contracts and revoking medical licenses, for speaking out about severe shortages of essential supplies needed to treat Covid-19 patients and prevent the spread of the disease in hospitals across the country.
Human Rights Watch also documented a number of incidents in which Thai officials selectively used public health justifications to suppress fundamental freedoms for politically motivated reasons, targeting anti-government activities.
On May 22, Bangkok police arrested prominent pro-democracy activists Anurak Jeantawanich and Tosaporn Serirak for violating the ban on public assembly – one of the emergency measures imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19. The arrest was triggered by a remembrance service they held earlier that day with supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship – known as the “Red Shirts” – to mark the 6th anniversary of the 2014 military coup. Thai authorities previously arrested Anurak on the same charges on May 13, when he held a remembrance service to demand justice for those killed and wounded by the military during the crackdown on the 2010 Red Shirts protests. Even though thermal scanners to detect fevers were provided at the events and participants wore face masks, the activists were accused of ignoring social distancing, acting in a way likely to spread the virus, and disobeying lawful orders in both cases. If found guilty, they face two years in prison and a 40,000 baht (US$1,250) fine.
In southern Thailand, local authorities in Songkhla province denied a request by villagers in Singha Nakhon district to hold a rally on May 24 in protest of the government’s plan to build beach walls and breakwaters on Muang Ngam Beach. Despite an assurance from the organizers to follow social distancing and other Covid-19 measures to keep people safe, officials prohibited the rally.
“While the Thai government has a responsibility to adopt measures to protect people from the pandemic, the government has not offered evidence to justify the extension of its limitless state of emergency,” Adams said. “Extending the emergency will allow Thai authorities to continue to repress contrary views, arrest critics, and ban peaceful rallies for political and not public health reasons.”