BKK Gubernatorial Candidates discussion on human rights denied

A Pathumwan administrator has blocked plans for a public discussion of human rights issues by candidates slated to run in the forthcoming gubernatorial election in Bangkok using Covid-19 spread risk as a reason, although activities of such kind had been held before.

According to Amnesty International Thailand (AI), one of the event organisers, the event was to be held from 15.00-20.00 on 3 May in front of the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre (BACC), a site surrounded by shopping malls and BTS train station skywalks. 

An event poster that shows a change of location to Sukosol hotel.

However, on 2 May, the organisers received a letter from Maswan Pinsuwan, the Pathumwan area director, informing them that the event could not take place because voice amplifiers were not allowed in the area and a gathering close to a major intersection risked the spread of Covid-19.

The rejection led to the panel being relocated and live-streamed from inside the Sukosol hotel instead.

In a 3 May interview with Khaosod, Khajit Chachawanich, Bangkok Metropolitan Permanent Secretary, said that the rejection was not for political reasons but rather because the organisers did not provide enough public health protection measures to handle the anticipated audience.  By way of example, he noted that if 500 people came to watch, entrances to the area should have been restricted and provided with sanitary alcohol gel and plans for other social distancing measure provided.

Organised on the theme “Bangkok: A city that leaves no one behind”, the event provided a venue for 24 candidates, the most to ever participate in a public forum, to present their vision for human rights issues in Bangkok.

The organisers originally planned to stage the event in front of BACC, an ideal space for attracting a public audience.  Located next to the Pathumwan Intersection, it is surrounded by 3 malls connected by skywalks, close to Chulalongkorn University (CU), and easily accessible from BTS station. For these reasons, many past public gatherings and protests have been held there.

Protesters occupy Pathumwan Intersection on 16 October 2020. BACC's front yard can be seen behind the skywalk's stairway.

The abrupt rejection took organisers by surprise.  In the press conference, Thapanee Eadsrichai, a veteran journalist and founder of the Reporters news agency, one of the event organisers, said that the request to use the site was in line with the procedure. They proposed public health measures for the event and surrounding perimeter. They also received approval from BACC to use the space, had arranged rented terms and had obtained permission from the police to use of voice amplifiers.

In contrast, the Pathumwan office stated that the event could only be held if a 2-metre fence was set up around the site to prevent bystanders on the skywalk from gathering and watching, a demand that organisers did not have enough time to meet. 

Some organisers suspect that the panel was blocked for political reasons.  Thapanee noted that the Pathumwan office recently approved the staging of a number of similar public gatherings in front of BACC, including a Gender fair, a Light and Fest art fair, and an opening ceremony for a Phayathai and Phra Ram I Road scenery improvement project. All three used amplifiers and none had a 2-metre fence to prevent people from looking down from the skywalk.

She went on to give examples of other events that have recently been held without such restrictions like the Bangkok Governor Vision Panel, which was held in April in front of Siam Paragon Shopping Centre -  just 500 metres away from BACC - and a Siam Paragon Countdown 2022 concert that was earlier organised in the same location.

“From now on, there will be many more debate panels and many more speech events by the candidates. I would like to ask the [Pathumwan area] office how they can approve these when they rejected ours.”

Piyanut Kotsan, AI Thailand director, said AI took part in the panel because they want to know the position of gubernatorial candidates on human rights issues, a matter of concern for people everywhere.

“It poses a question for the media, the candidates, and society: in this society, what if any space is there for human rights? How can we build hope and support for a Bangkok that leaves no one behind?” said Piyanut.

Bodin Saisang from Mahidol University’s Institute for Human Rights and Peace Studies, one of the event organisers, noted that free and fair elections require public participation and added that not being able to hold the event in public and limiting media to coverage of matters important to voters is very unfair.

Puwakorn Srinian, a deputy director of Zendai, a civil society group that arose in 2021 to help Covid-19 patients obtain access to adequate medical care, noted the growing importance of rights issues in a society deeply divided by inequality.   Saddened that the panel was moved to a less public setting, he called upon people to watch the event online.

Krittapat Chettacharoenrat, vice president of the CU Political Science student club, another event organiser, said that students wanted to hear from the candidates on HR issues, one of the reasons why plans were made to hold the panel in a public space right next to the University.

In addition to the Reporters, AI Thailand,  the CU student Political Science club, Mahidol University’s Institute for Human Rights and Peace Studies, Zendai, other organisers included the CU Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Thammasat University’s faculty of Political Science, the Nisit Recorder, the Issarachon Foundation, Mobdata Thailand, Khao 3 Miti and AIS PLAY.

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