Thailand: Lift restrictions on protests, drop cases against critics

Thailand’s military government has repeatedly violated human rights in its relentless pursuit of critics and protesters, ARTICLE 19 said today as it launched the Thai language version of The Right to Protest: Principles on the protection of human rights in protests. The government must immediately lift its ban on political gatherings and end criminal proceedings against individuals targeted merely for exercising rights guaranteed by international law.

“The authorities’ efforts to purge public squares, airwaves and online forums of dissenting voices will only serve to bottle up discontent and perpetuate instability”, said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “As Thailand moves towards elections, it is imperative that the government provide the space for the public to air grievances, express controversial opinions and otherwise exercise fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Since coming to power in a May 2014 military coup, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has gone to great lengths to stifle all forms of dissent. In particular, authorities have severely restricted the right of people in Thailand to participate in street protests and other public assemblies. In the wake of the coup, military authorities used powers granted by martial law to impose a ban on “political gatherings” of five or more persons. In April 2015, the military government replaced martial law with the draconian NCPO Order No. 3/2558, which maintained the ban on political gatherings. The decree provides criminal penalties of up to six months’ imprisonment for those violating the ban. Government authorities have regularly used the order to arrest and charge protesters and threaten those attempting to organize public events.

At times, authorities have also used other laws to target individuals taking part in protests or other public gatherings. A restrictive Public Assembly Act, promulgated in 2015, assigns criminal penalties for failure to comply with prior notification requirements and has frequently been used to illegitimately target protesters, including political and environmental activists. The government has also levelled sedition charges, which carry penalties of up to seven years’ imprisonment, against those calling for a return to democratic rule.

In January 2018, NCPO authorities filed charges against 39 pro-democracy activists — seven of whom face charges of sedition — after they participated in a rally to call for the government to keep its promise to hold elections by November 2018. Similar protests in February and March have likewise led to the charging of dozens of activists. Many leading pro-democracy activists face multiple criminal cases and potentially decades of imprisonment because of their protest activities.

Government repression of dissenting opinions has extended beyond the streets. Using a raft of laws—including the Computer Crime Act, the Referendum Act governing the 2016 constitutional referendum, and penal code provisions relating to sedition, defamation and lèse-majesté (insults to the monarchy)—authorities have pursued critics and those expressing dissenting views in meetings, at conferences, in human rights reports, in letters to government officials, on social media and in private communications.

The Right to Protest elaborates a set of minimum standards for the respect, protection and fulfilment of the right to protest, while promoting a clear recognition of the limited scope of permissible restrictions. The principles articulated in the document are drawn from international human rights standards, including human rights treaties to which Thailand is a party.

Thailand’s heavy-handed efforts to suppress protest activities run counter to the principles described in Right to Protest and constitute clear violations of its obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights, including the rights to public participation and freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Moreover, the justifications advanced by the Thai government for limiting the rights of protesters fall far short of the standards for restricting human rights set by international law.

ARTICLE 19 calls on the Thai government to immediately revoke NCPO Order No. 3/2558 and to prioritise the reform or repeal of other legislation and military decrees restricting the exercise of human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association. Moreover, Thai authorities should end criminal proceedings against those charged merely for the exercise of their rights and ensure those imprisoned on such grounds are immediately and unconditionally released.

“By turning peaceful protest into a crime, Thailand’s military leaders have underscored their intolerance for criticism and genuine public discourse,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “Thai people, regardless of political affiliation or philosophy, should have the ability to express dissenting opinions, criticise government officials, and demonstrate discontent without fear of retaliation.”

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