Last summer in Thailand was the height of campaigning for a constitutional referendum, which, if passed, would enshrine the military’s hand in a new civilian government. But a visible opposition argued that the generals, who took power in a 2014 coup, were forcing through a new constitution that stifled democracy.
On July 10, 2016, police searched the truck of three student activists, accompanied by a journalist, and discovered flyers, stickers and other campaign materials urging Thais to vote no in the referendum. The four were arrested and charged with violating Article 61 of the Referendum Act, a law used to punish the distribution of information “inconsistent with the truth” to influence voters. In the criminal complaint, the prosecutor said the activists “had dared to distribute some documents and blue stickers.” In their trial, which begins next month, the defendants face up to 10 years in prison.
This story of political persecution appears in a new report from Amnesty International,“They Cannot Keep Us Quiet,” which details Thailand’s military rulers use of The Referendum Act and other repressive laws to severely restrict freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. They’ve stifled public discourse on matters of national interest, limited political activities, shut down public gatherings and monitored private communications.
The report describes criminal proceedings against 64 members of Thailand’s civil society, including journalists, activists, lawyers and academics. All have faced legal blowback for their views on human rights violations, academic freedom and the government, a mostly military body called the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) that has enjoyed broad authority since a bloodless coup d’état in May 2014.
In a televised statement after the coup, then-General Prayuth Chan-ocha, NCPO leader and now prime minister, insisted the event was “not a coup” and that martial law had been imposed to restore order to Thailand following months of anti-government protests.
Thailand, a major U.S. ally and trade partner in Southeast Asia, has seen 12 military coups since its first one in 1932. The most recent previous coup was in 2006, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was removed by the army after corruption allegations. This led to the beginning of sustained political strife between left-leaning government supporters known as the red shirts and the more affluent nationalists known as yellow shirts, who led the 2006 demonstrations that precipitated the coup. Subsequently the red shirts voiced their allegiance to Shinawatra in 2011 by electing his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as prime minister.
After Prayuth deposed Yingluck Shinawatra and nine of her senior ministers in 2014, he defended the decision noting that “The Royal Thai Army intends to bring back peace and order to the beloved country of every Thai as soon as possible.” Effectively repealing Thailand’s 2007 constitution, the declaration of martial law, among other things, gave the military superiority over civil authority, unfettered power to search people and property, and control over information, including books. Soldiers could also prohibit meetings and the distribution of printed materials, including newspapers.
Many of the laws and orders used against members of Thailand’s civil society contain excessively broad or vague language, allowing them to be applied arbitrarily against political opponents or anyone who disagrees with the military junta, according to Amnesty International.
For instance, the Computer Crimes Act, passed in 2007, allows authorities to monitor online content and to prosecute people for various broadly defined offenses. Another NCPO order provides for up to six months imprisonment and a fine for anyone participating in “political gatherings of five or more persons.” The oldest law used by the military junta is “lese majeste.” The 108-year-old law, one of the strictest anti-defamation laws in the world, provides a penalty of up to 15 years imprisonment for anyone who “defames, insults or threatens the King, the Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent.”