(New York) – Thailand’s military junta is targeting a range of peaceful critics for prosecution prior to the third anniversary of the military coup, Human Rights Watch said today. Charges were recently brought against 59-year-old Veera Somkwamkid, a prominent anti-corruption activist, for mocking Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha on Facebook.
The ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has frequently harassed and prosecuted peaceful critics, including those who have poked fun of the junta, since taking power in a May 2014 coup, Human Rights Watch said.
“The junta can’t even take some mockery on Facebook without throwing someone in jail,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This intolerance of political criticism and dissenting opinions is an embrace of dictatorial rule, not a transition to democracy.”
An arrest warrant was filed against Veera on March 9, 2017, under the Computer-Related Crime Act, the provisions of which were expanded in December. The charges against him relate to a satirical questionnaire on his Facebook page asking which of the promises in the junta’s theme song “Returning Happiness to Thailand,” composed by General Prayut, had been fulfilled. Most of the 123 participants who answered Veera’s questions responded that “None” of the junta’s pledges had been met.
The Police Technology Crime Suppression Division subsequently accused Veera of misleading the public by reporting false information about the junta’s popularity. Veera said his questionnaire was a response to polls published by pro-government survey institutions that showed strong popular support for the prime minister.
Last April, General Prayut said in a media interview that he ordered officials to take legal action against anyone participating in mocking him on social media: “I will prosecute them all. They can’t make fun of me… My legal team already has their eyes on these people. What they do is illegal.”
Soon after, on April 27, 2016, Thai authorities arrested eight people – Natthika Worathaiyawich, Harit Mahaton, Noppakao Kongsuwan, Worawit Saksamutnan, Yothin Mangkhangsanga, Thanawat Buranasiri, Supachai Saibut, and Kannasit Tangboonthina – for being involved in the making and dissemination of commentary on the parody Facebook page “We Love General Prayut.” They have been charged with sedition under article 116 of the Penal Code, which carries up to a seven-year sentence, and with committing computer-related crimes. Their cases have been brought to the Bangkok Military Court.
Previously, in October 2015, the military authorities detained a prominent cartoonist Sakda Sae-iao (also known by his penname Sia) of Thai Rath newspaper and put him through an “attitude adjustment” program after he drew editorial cartoons satirizing Prayut’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly, in which the junta leader pledged to uphold human rights while repression was a daily reality in Thailand. Sakda was also warned that he would face legal action if he continued to criticize Prayut or other junta members.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand has ratified, prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on national security grounds unless they are provided by law, strictly construed, and necessary and proportionate to address a legitimate threat. Laws that impose criminal penalties for peaceful expression are of particular concern because of the chilling effects they have on free speech.
The UN Human Rights Committee, the independent expert body that monitors compliance with the ICCPR, has stated in a general comment on freedom expression that:
“[T]he mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties. … Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition. Accordingly, the Committee expresses concern regarding laws on such matters as … disrespect for authority, … and the protection of the honour of public officials. [Governments] should not prohibit criticism of institutions, such as the army or the administration.”
On March 13 and 14, soon after authorities charged Veera, a Thai delegation told the Human Rights Committee during the review of the country’s obligations under the ICCPR that the government respects freedom of expression. However, the junta’s record on freedom of expression has been poor, as the authorities have repeatedly harassed and prosecuted people for their speech, writings and internet postings critical of the government.
“The junta should cease using its draconian laws to silence and punish its critics,” Adams said. “Thailand’s friends should not only press for Veera’s release, but for the government to stop persecuting people for expressing their peaceful views.”