First published in Vice News, 7July 2015
This morning, Bangkok’s military court ordered the release from prison of 14 pro-democracy activists who have been held since June 26 for rallying peacefully against the ruling military junta’s coup. Though the court rejected a police petition to extend their pre-trial detention, the student activists still face up to seven years in prison for breaking the junta’s laws against public gatherings and “sedition.”
Human rights groups have criticized the junta’s prosecution of civilians through military courts and had pressed for the release of the group, which is affiliated with the anti-junta New Democracy Movement (NDM). While the release order was a rare promising development, a board member of Amnesty International Thailand has also since been charged with sedition for showing support for the 14 students, while the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is also under scrutiny for its coverage of their demonstration.
The activists led a march through Bangkok on June 25. They stopped at landmarks to the country’s 1973 student uprising and the memorial to the 1976 Thammasat University student massacre before assembling at the capital’s Democracy Monument, where they delivered speeches denouncing the military junta, which is known as the National Council for Peace and Order.
“If we are to be punished by the NCPO, we are willing to accept it,” Rangsiman Rome, one of the activists from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, remarked to reporters at the time. “But our acceptance does not mean that we recognize that our actions are illegal.”
The following day, the 14 protest leaders were arrested, interrogated, and remanded in custody.
On the other side of Bangkok, Supinya Klangnarong and her colleagues at the independent National Broadcast and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) received a formal complaint from the military’s media oversight committee asking that they look into Thai PBS’s reporting on the NDM demonstration.
Speaking to VICE News over the phone, she expressed her initial surprise that Thai PBS of all stations had been cited.
“If you compare media, free-to-air TV stations already exercise a lot of self-censorship and won’t violate the law,” Supinya said, though she acknowledged that political pressure had increased the targeting of media outlets. “There have been a lot more complaints based on political reporting compared to before the coup.”
Authorities have cracked down harshly on dissenting voices since the country’s military seized power from the popularly elected government in May 2014. Hundreds of civilians have since been prosecuted in military courts, many of them university students.
The arrest of seven student activists who protested in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen in May drew the ire of the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.
“The government should open up space for different opinions and expressions as a genuine democracy cannot be driven by force or suppression,” the organization’s executive director said in a statement.
The arrest and detention of the 14 NDM activists the following month helped prompt a wider backlash among local and international human rights groups.
On July 3, scores of ordinary Thais expressed their solidarity by writing messages of support on Post-it notes along a skywalk in central Bangkok. Days earlier, a group of nearly 300 academics released a statement praising the activists before declaring, “only a tyrant would react using brute force and enforcement of barbaric laws on students using their citizens’ rights to call for reinstatement of internationally-held values and governance.”
In statements released last week, the European Union’s office in Thailand called the arrests a “disturbing development” and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the junta to drop the criminal charges.
“The OHCHR is concerned criminal prosecutions for peaceful assembly and expression that carry long prison terms are not necessary or proportional,” it said.
Yet not everyone feels such sympathy for the activists or their cause. In Khon Kaen, where the seven student activists were arrested in May, some 100 people gathered for the second time in a week to denounce the students detained in Bangkok. Outside the courthouse earlier today, a crowd of pro-democracy supporters roundly booed a middle-aged man who appeared holding up a sign that read: “A good dictator is better than a bad democracy.”
The ruling NCPO has been fairly dismissive of both the international criticism and the activists themselves. Maj. Gen. Weerachon Sukontapatipak, the official spokesperson of the NCPO, said that while he understood the objections of international bodies, they “lack a true understanding” of the political context.
Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former armed forces commander who was appointed prime minister last August by a parliament that he personally selected, also pushed back.
“Thailand has its own laws to follow,” he said earlier this month. “I’ve not abused my power, nor have I violated anyone’s rights, except for [the rights of] those who refused to play by the rules.”
Despite such bluster, the public relations aspect of the case appears to have had some effect on the decision to release the students from pre-trial detention. Expectations of this were raised after Prayuth himself was recently reported to have said that he had offered suggestions to the “judicial side” on how to manage the case.
“The court’s decision today is just window dressing to reduce pressure,” Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, told VICE News. He sees Thailand continuing to sink further into dictatorship despite the NCPO’s promised “Roadmap to Democracy.”
“Prayuth declared that his orders are the law and violators will be prosecuted in a military court,” Sunai said. “There are rolling repressions on fundamental rights and freedom. Nothing has changed.”