With under two weeks to go to Thailand’s crucial 7 August referendum on a new constitution, supposedly paving the way to a return to democracy, the ruling military junta in Bangkok has cracked down on dissent and press freedoms, making a free and fair vote impossible, says Sunai Phasuk.
Sunai Phasuk is senior reasearcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch. He was speaking to euractiv.com’s Matthew Tempest.
Can you give a general overview of the human rights situation in Thailand since the military seized power in May 2014?
Thailand has faced a deepening human rights crisis since the May 2014 military coup. The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta, led by Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has banned political activity and peaceful public gatherings, criminalised freedom of expression, made hundreds of arbitrary arrests and held detainees in military detention without safeguards against abuses.
Military courts are regularly used to try civilians, particularly political dissidents and alleged offenders of the ‘lese majeste’ (insulting the monarchy) laws. Under Thailand’s interim constitution, the junta operates with total impunity for human rights violations and without any effective oversight.
Thailand’s security forces have committed serious human rights violations with impunity. No officials, commanders, soldiers, or police have been punished for unlawful killings or other wrongful use of force during the 2010 political confrontations, which left at least 90 dead and more than 2,000 injured.
Nor have any security personnel been criminally prosecuted for serious violations of international humanitarian law related to counterinsurgency operations in the southern Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala provinces, where separatist insurgents have also committed numerous abuses. Successive Thai governments have shown no interest in investigating more than 2,000 extrajudicial killings related to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s “war on drugs” in 2003.
Has the situation deteriorated – and if so how – in the run-up to the constitutional referendum on 7 August?
International human rights law protects the rights of Thai people to express publicly their views on the draft constitution and to vote freely. In this regard, the junta has repeatedly pledged to accept democratic governance and highlight a human rights policy guided by the principles of “reaching out, hearing out and respecting the views of all.” But the military authorities have reacted severely to people who have expressed criticism of the junta-sponsored draft constitution, which will be voted on in a referendum scheduled for 7 August.
What are the particular cases and treatment of journalists and political activists and dissidents?
The junta’s intolerance for opposition to the draft constitution raises concerns of heightened repression prior to the referendum. The junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinion to be “false information” and a threat to national security. Article 61 of the 2016 Referendum Act, which governs the referendum process, criminalises “anyone who disseminates text, pictures or sounds that are inconsistent with the truth or in a violent, aggressive, rude, inciting or threatening manner aimed at preventing a voter from casting a ballot or vote in any direction or to not vote.” Violators face imprisonment up to ten years, fines up to 200,000 baht (€5,100), and loss of voting rights for ten years.
Does the constitution offer hope of a better human rights situation and space for civil society, or are there particular concerns about it?
The constitutional referendum is essentially an attempt to reaffirm the military’s domination of political power. On 19 April, General Prayuth said that opponents of the draft constitution “have no rights to say that they disagree… I don’t allow anyone to debate or hold a press conference about the draft constitution. Yet they still disobey my orders. They will be arrested and jailed for ten years. No one will be exempted when the Referendum Act becomes effective. Not even the media.”
So what are the prospects of the 2017 election being ‘free and fair’ under the current human rights situation?
As the junta expects the Thai people to just shut up, obey their orders, and approve their draft constitution that will prolong military rule, the conditions for the upcoming referendum make for a free and fair plebiscite impossible. For many voters the only source of information about the draft constitution comes from the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Commission, the military, the Election Commission, and other government agencies – all of which have taken the position that the proposed constitution would benefit the Thai people. At the same time, the junta has refused to allow most seminars, conferences, and other public events that would encourage meaningful public discussion and debate about the draft constitution. Many activists, academics, and politicians have been intimidated and faced prosecution with harsh penalties under the Referendum Act – including a sentence of ten years in prison – for urging voters to reject the draft constitution. At least, 115 people have been arrested for criticising the draft constitution. The junta also bans referendum-monitoring activity across the country. (For specific cases, see HRW report).
On the other hand, the referendum will serve as a conduit for dissenting voices which have been suppressed since the coup to speak up again. A real challenge for the junta is not just about how to push through the draft constitution, but how to control opposition groups in the aftermath of the referendum.