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Basic freedoms stifled in Thailand amid youth-led democracy uprising, says HRW

Thailand’s government in 2020 escalated its repression of basic rights in the face of a growing, youth-led democracy movement demanding political and constitutional reforms, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday (13 January) in its World Report 2021.

A protester flashing the three-finger 'Hunger Games' salute as riot police continue to fire tear gas at the protesters during the 6-hour clash on Samsen Road on 17 November 2020

Protests that started on July 18 soon spread across the country, calling for the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, an end to harassment by the authorities, and the drafting of a new constitution. Some protests included demands to curb the king’s powers. The government responded by cracking down on protest leaders, charging more than 100 of them with illegal assembly, violating Covid-19 related restrictions, and sedition.

“The Thai government has responded to peaceful demands from youth for sweeping political reforms by making Thailand’s human rights crisis go from bad to worse,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai authorities have prosecuted dissenters, violently dispersed peaceful protests, censored news and social media, and punished critical political speech.”

In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy, in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.

On October 15, riot police forcibly cleared protesters who had camped outside the Government House in Bangkok. In the ensuing days, police assaulted peaceful protesters using water cannons, mixed with dye and teargas chemicals, as well as teargas grenades. On November 17, at least 55 people were injured, most from inhaling teargas, and six pro-democracy protesters were wounded by gunfire during a clash with ultra-royalist groups after police withdrew. On November 18, the spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres expressed concerns about the Thai government’s use of force against peaceful protesters. 

The government intimidated and punished children and youths who participated in the pro-democracy campaigns. The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights reported in August a total of 103 harassment incidents against students across the country. At least four high school students were charged with illegal assembly.

The government routinely enforced censorship, including on social media platforms, blocking and punishing opinions the authorities deemed critical of the monarchy. In November, Prime Minister Prayuth brought back lèse-majesté prosecutions after a three-year hiatus. As of December, at least 35 people, including a 16-year-old boy, were charged under article 112 of the penal code (insulting the monarchy) for demanding reform of the monarchy, or saying or writing or doing anything the authorities considered offensive to the monarchy. Critics of the monarchy were also prosecuted under sedition, cybercrime, and other legal provisions.

Thai dissidents who have fled Thailand to escape political persecution face grave threats to their lives. On June 4, an exiled democracy activist, Wanchalearm Satsaksit, was abducted in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and remains missing. Since 2016, at least nine Thai political activists have been forcibly disappeared in neighboring countries. Two of them were found killed.

“Thailand’s foreign friends should stop ignoring the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in the country,” Adams said. “It’s not possible to return to business as usual without securing Thai government commitments to respect democratic principles and rights for all.”

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