The abuse of powers by politicians and the unjustified use of security-related laws in the aftermath of Thailand’s 19th military coup d’etat on May 22 characterizes impunity in the country, leading to the general worsening of freedom of expression over the past year (November 2013 – 2014).
In retrospect, the May 22 military coup d’etat, staged to keep the country from falling into violence, has deepened social injustices and further exacerbated impunity for crimes against freedom of expression in the country.
The martial law that preceded the coup and subsequent orders issued by the military junta – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – remains in place despite the setting up of an interim government, still led by coup leader Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha. The post-coup government will supposedly pave the way for a national reform process targeted at the root cause of the divide: poverty and injustice.
These overly broad and intrusive measures have cast a wider net over those who criticised the coup and its leaders.
iLaw, an advocacy and freedom of expression documentation center for internet rights, reported that in the first four months of the coup, 571 individuals, including activists, writers, journalists and academics, were arrested and detained through military orders. Of that number, 107 were arrested for peaceful assembly and expressing their critical views against the coup over the mainstream and social media. Some were convicted to sentences of between three and six months and fined up to 5,000 baht (about 150 USD) for defying military orders by failing to report or for being at gatherings of more than five people.
Under the military court, the discrepancy and inconsistency in applying criminal justice principles were obvious. The bulk of those arrested were either associated with or were members of the ‘red-shirt’ movement, and the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party. Members of groups that led the seven-month pre-coup protest – the Democrat Party and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), formed only in 2013 – were likewise summoned but in far fewer numbers.
Those charged with lese majeste were denied bail and for those facing charges of inciting unrest or failing to report to the army posted had to post 600,000-baht (about 18,750 USD) bail bonds. There were reports of detainees being tortured during interrogation, while information about persons who have been disappeared has not been confirmed. The military denied they had a policy to torture political detainees and that there were enforced disappearance cases.
According to iLaw, the period also saw a spike in the number of persons charged with lese majeste offences, 15 cases. On 18 November 18, the first lese majeste conviction since the coup was a 10-year prison term for defaming the monarchy on Facebook. The sentence was reduced to five years since the person pleaded guilty. Crimes related to security matters including lese majeste are now tried under military courts. Among 86 people facing criminal prosecution after being arrested or summoned, 64 of them were sent to military courts while only 22 went to civilian courts.
During the same period, free speech, media freedom and public access to information has been severely restricted. Because of martial law, the military managed to control information and restrict speech, both online and offline, not only to neutralize deep political divisions in society, but also to silence any opposition.
A series of other measures aimed at monitoring and controlling information in Thailand were introduced, including setting up a new administrative body to monitor and control online content, surveillance of mobile messaging applications, targeting and arresting activists and former government officials based on their social media activities, and introducing an application to harvest users’ Facebook credentials.
A week after the coup, all six free television stations resumed normal programming, but they were forced to tone down their news reports, especially on political and current affairs. The 200-plus cable and satellite television stations, including political media outlets, resumed only three months after the coup. Many were forced to change names or adjust their content to non-political edutainment programs. Some alternative media websites such as Prachatai.com was partially blocked when content critical of the junta were posted. Social media platforms have been monitored and some Facebook pages with political comments were removed.
The close to 10,000 community radio stations – both the licensed and unlicensed – have been suspended. Less than half, mainly commercial stations, were able to resume broadcast by October. While many of them have been blamed for inciting political hatred, these stations were a main source of information about politics among people in the rural communities.
Less than 200 independent community radio stations reopened. The National Broadcasting and Telecom Commission (NBTC) imposed stiff conditions for resumption, including a high fees for antenna-tuning, compulsory licensing for radio hosts and non-political contents. For many community radio stations, resumption simply became too expensive, since they rely on community donations for their survival.
Control over the media is enforced through Orders No 97 and 103, which prohibit media coverage of news and commentary that may undermine the monarchy and national security, tarnish the reputation of NCPO officers and obstruct their operation.
Prior to the coup, the Thai Journalists Association recorded at least 10 violent acts against the media workers during the PDRC demonstrations. No fatalities were recorded, but a number of them suffered injuries from being manhandled or being caught in the crossfire between armed confrontations between PDRC guards and unidentified gunmen. In several instances, protesters attacked and harassed media representatives whom they deemed were biased against them.
There was no follow-up investigation into these incidents. In the past, very few cases of media killings were brought to the courts. Although work-related killings of journalists has not happened recently, verbal threats and physical attacks against media workers by state and not-state actors remained common practice.
In the decade prior, the culture of impunity also prevailed against justice for suspected anti-government elements and victims of human rights violations, especially in the conflicted areas in Southern Thailand. Among the victims are those resisting land and natural resource exploitation, whose rights have been trampled over by political and security forces.
A stark example is the Tak Bai incident on 25 October 10 years ago in Thailand’s predominantly-Muslim southern province of Pattani. No security officer involved in the incident has been punished for the death of 85 protesters, who died of suffocation after being piled atop each other on the military trucks on the way from the Tak Bai police station to the military camp.
The incident serves to remind all that the lack of justice will perpetrate more violence, and made evident by the death toll of 6,000 civilians and state officials over 10 years in the conflict in the three southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala. This number includes cases not related to the armed conflict.
The media faces a huge problem of access to comprehensive and balanced information about the conflict situation. Given the safety and security risks, journalist reporting on the conflict have had to compromise on the news gathering process by relying on information fed by the Army. Moreover, media tends to overlook reporting on cultural and social aspects of the southern Muslim communities. Even though there have been several efforts to offer alternative views, access to such sources is still limited. As a result, the predominantly Buddhist Thai general public remains ignorant about the plight of Thai Muslims in the south.
There is a serious lack of effective legal remedies to hold state officials responsible for crimes against citizens such as torture in detention, enforced disappearance or extra judicial killings. Likewise, the judiciary has been either weak in enforcing the laws or influenced by politics.
At SEAPA’s Roundtable Discussion on Impunity and its Impact on Freedom of Expression in Thailand on October 31, to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, human rights defenders and media activists called upon the interim government to immediately address the problematic laws.
They argued that a restrictive environment bodes ill for true national reconciliation and reform process. This is because there has not been any justice for the opposing sides for all crimes committed during the political crackdowns since 2006 military coup d’etat and the subsequent politics-related violence.
The remaining polarized public views on politics also blocks them from achieving a balanced view needed to tackle impunity by the state and non-state actors. The political crisis that precipitated the recent coup was triggered in November 2013 by the introduction of an amnesty bill, which would have given a blanket of immunity for all political actors. However, resistance to the bill was limited to a narrow political agenda, without any attempt to educate the public about the wider problem of impunity in Thailand.
Panelists suggested the Thai government lift martial law and rescind military orders issued since the military coup d’etat as a first step for justice to the victims of human rights violations. Eventually martial law and the emergency laws, which contain impunity provisions, must be either amended to allow military accountability, or be repealed and replaced by laws that can provide adequate of protection of human rights.
These restrictive measures will only derail any moves for a genuine national reform and the state of freedom of speech in Thailand would get worse if the culture of impunity is not addressed, both in how the laws are used against citizens and journalists and where violence is not condemned and adequately investigated.