Thailand: The Uphill Battle to Repeal NCPO Decrees

Thai PM Prayut Chan-ocha

Prayuth Chan-ocha casts his ballot during the March 2019 elections in Thailand. He’s expected expected to remain at the helm through his handpicked senate and military proxy Palang Pracharath Party.  thanis / Shutterstock.com

Stepping off the elevator and into the famed penthouse at downtown Bangkok’s Maneeya Center, Chonthicha Jangrew takes a seat close to the bar.

The chairs and tables at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand begin to fill up around her with foreign embassy staff, humanitarians and journalists.

They’ve all gathered 10 days ahead of the election to catch a glimpse of the much-anticipated International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) report More Shadows than Lights: Thailand’s political parties and their human rights commitments.

Chonthicha, 26, is a founding member of Democracy Restoration Group. She was hoping to share some of her story with those in attendance, but remained silent as journalists monopolised the question-and-answer session.

“If you have mental health problems it’s hard to get help. We don’t talk about this,” she’d said to me before the event. “Human rights defenders are affected by the numerous court cases against them, [and] by police intimidation. But nobody talks about how this has affected our lives.”

“Attitude adjustment” and the use of the law

After Thailand’s 2014 military coup that brought the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO) to power, “attitude adjustment” sessions became the order of the day. Failure to report was a criminal offence.

During these sessions, soldiers sought to intimidate politicians, activists and journalists from using their platform to criticise the NCPO or call for a return to democracy. While not all have reported abuse, some say they had been mistreated by the authorities.

These sessions were usually followed up by police visits to family homes to convince loved ones to get the opponent of the regime to cease all political activity, or face arrest and court martial.

“Human rights defenders are affected by the numerous court cases against them, [and] by police intimidation. But nobody talks about how this has affected our lives”

In 2016, Chonthicha was jailed for violating a NCPO ban on political assembly for staging a protest calling for elections. She was held for two weeks in a military prison and still lives with the scars of the trauma inflicted upon her inside.

“After I left jail I started having serious mental health problems. I was the only woman in the cell and everyone was threatening me,” she tells New Naratif.

In 2017, the Computer Crimes Act was revised to silence the regime’s most outspoken critics online. It was intended to cover only lese majeste, Thailand’s strict royal insult law. But it immediately became apparent it would be used to pursue critics of the NCPO.

Cybercrime investigations act as a way to deter dissidents from making any further public statements against the regime on social media.

The NCPO often claims that dissidents’ social media posts are against Thailand’s national security and strict public morality laws. The investigations are often enough to cause the desired chilling effect; it’s rare that any actual charges are filed in the courts.

But for those using Thailand’s two most popular online applications—Facebook and Line—to distribute information about street protests, some have been targeted with strategic lawsuits against public participation.

Lengthy court dates and expensive legal fees keep activists tied up with their cases, taking time and energy away from coordinating further action.

This kept many Thais away from street protests and ensured that the numbers of those publicly demanding the NCPO step aside and hold elections were kept low—allowing the junta to postpone elections five times and buy enough time to rewrite the constitution in a way that gives them the chance to remain in power through an elected mandate.

In its 2019 World Report, Human Rights Watch documented 130 arrests for violating the political assembly ban. It also noted that laws relating to royal insult, cybercrime and sedition were used against dissidents.

The ban was lifted in December 2018 to allow political parties to organise and contest the March 2019 election. But the charges filed in military court against activists for violating this ban have yet to be dropped.

“The junta has failed to transfer 369 criminal cases, involving more than 1,800 civilians, from military courts to civilian courts as international law requires,” stated the Human Rights Watch report.

Chonthicha is one of 92 Thais facing charges of sedition; she faces three counts in civilian court. As in many countries, sedition is a law meant to prosecute treasonous activity, essentially “traitors” against their own state or monarch.

The maximum sentence is seven years per count. This means Chonthicha could be sentenced to 21 years in prison for participating in peaceful protests. In Thailand this law was revived to prosecute human rights defenders like Chonthicha and members of Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.

Even lawyers haven’t been immune to this type of rule by law. Sirikan Charoensiri has been accused of sedition for representing 14 student activists in court—all arrested for violating the same NCPO ban on political assembly.

She has won human rights awards for her legal work in Thailand. Her colleague Prawet Prapanukul was sentenced to 16 months in prison for sedition last June.

What happens after the election?

Now that the 9 May official election results have been announced, the NCPO will step down to be replaced by a civilian government. But will charges filed by the regime in military and civilian courts be dropped before then? Chonthicha is waiting for answers.

Pro- and anti-NCPO political parties are vying to form the next government. Pheu Thai—the party overthrown in the 2014 coup—and seven others have secured 245 seats in parliament according to the Election Commission.

A majority of 251 seats is required to form a government. This means that, under the EC final count, the democratic front won’t have quite enough seats to form the next government.

FIDH’s report states only 25 out of 77 Thai political parties have committed to abolishing laws associated with the outgoing regime. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha is expected to remain at the helm through his handpicked senate—as outlined in the military-backed constitution—and military proxy Palang Pracharath Party.

Thai civil society groups are ramping up efforts to overturn all NCPO orders and decrees so they don’t remain on the books

Thai civil society groups are ramping up efforts to overturn all NCPO orders and decrees so they don’t remain on the books. In the final days of the election campaign, iLaw—Thailand’s internet dialogue on law reform—collected signatures for a petition to abolish the remaining orders not lifted by the NCPO.

“There were more than 500 decrees made by the Thai military junta,” says Anon Chawalawan, documentation officer at iLaw. “The constitution states if you gather 10,000 Thai voters’ signatures you can submit a draft law to parliament.”

iLaw reached its mark of 10,000 signatures two days before the election but a few thousand extra will be needed, Anon says, before submitting it to the lower house of parliament. The government is expected to strike several thousand names from the petition on the basis that many names may be illegible or contain incorrect personal data.

But Anon worries that, if pro-military political parties form the next government, then this draft law may never even make it on to the floor of parliament.

Students versus the junta

In northeastern Thailand, as the wind sweeps over open fields near the University of Khon Kaen, a group of six Thai students sit at a table littered with clear plastic bags containing the remnants of the evening’s meal. Books are stacked along the walls with posters reading “No Dam.”

This is Dao Din house. Wisally Ngamna, 21, and Payu Boonsophon, 24, sit at the table discussing their next steps following the election.

Dao Din gained national attention by protesting the appearance of Prayuth in Khon Kaen shortly after the 2014 coup. They wore T-shirts that read “No to coup d’etat” and famously made the three-finger salute—a form of protest from The Hunger Games trilogy and now a symbol of resistance against the NCPO—in his presence.

The stage was set for a David versus Goliath battle between the student group and the NCPO as it began its crackdown on any form of dissent using their arsenal of laws. Dao Din House has been raided several times by police.

In 2016, Jatupat “Pai Dao Din” Boonpattararaksa was found guilty and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for committing lese majeste and cybercrime. Pai—along with 2,600 other Facebook users—shared a BBC Thai story about the new King Vajiralongkorn to his Facebook page. Nobody at the BBC was charged.

Last year, 25-year-old pro-democracy activist Chanoknan Ruamsap fled Thailand for South Korea—where she has since been granted political asylum—to escape the accusations of lese-majeste levelled against her for sharing the same story on social media.

“Any attempt to challenge the regime or to hold it accountable has in every case failed”

Pai has since been released under a royal pardon. But because he’s also one of the 130 facing charges in a military court for violating the same NCPO ban, nobody is certain if he’ll be allowed to remain free.

All Dao Din members signed the petition to abolish the remaining 65 NCPO orders once and for all, but they haven’t gone as far as signing up to a campaign to hold the military junta accountable for the human rights violations committed over the last five years.

“Any attempt to challenge the regime or to hold it accountable has in every case failed. That all of them failed is noteworthy and tells us where the judicial system is and that it doesn’t provide the last resort for justice in Thailand,” said David Streckfuss, an independent academic based in Khon Kaen and the author of Truth on Trial in Thailand.

“Check bill NCPO”

In the northern city of Chiang Mai, 24-year-old Prasit Krutarot heads to a Future Forward Party rally to mark the end of the election campaign.

The history student teaches others on campus about each political party’s stance on ending NCPO rule and reversing its policies. Future Forward Party’s co-founder Thanathorn Joongroongruangkit was charged with sedition, aiding fugitives, and violating the political assembly ban. These charges stem from a 2015 protest he allegedly attended. This means he could possibly face a military court.

Thanathorn may also face cybercrime charges for allegedly sharing “false information” about the NCPO in a Facebook Live video last year.

Future Forward Thanathorn

Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit greets supporters outside a police station in April 2019. feelphoto / Shutterstock.com

According to unofficial results, Future Forward Party came in third place behind Palang Pracharath and Pheu Thai. It did extremely well with young Thais, and especially with human rights defenders who found its core policy of reversing the endless cycle of military coups appealing.

Prasit is helping Chonthicha with plans to present a laundry list of human rights violations and corruption allegations made against NCPO leaders. Some of these include Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan’s failure to declare 25 luxury watches not declared as assets that led to a huge backlash on social media, and a government housing project constructed in a protected forest that led to street protests in Chiang Mai.

Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 scored Thailand 36 out of 100—showing an annual decline in tackling corruption since the military took power.

Prasit and Chonthicha call their nascent campaign “Check bill NCPO”—a commonly used colloquialism in Thailand to refer to receipts. They will also request for all charges to be dropped against former political prisoners like Pai.

But both have realised that presenting this sort of human rights checklist to a pro-military government will be a challenge. Following the outcome of the election, the campaign appears not to have moved forward.

But this is unlikely to be that surprising a turn of events for Thai activists. Even back at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club event that took place before the elections, any talk of military crimes, corruption or accountability would surely bring the police to shut down the event, which has happened several times in the past when discussing Thai history.

No time was given to hear from human rights defenders like Chonthicha, so at the end of the event she quietly walked around to greet her friends, then headed to the elevator and exited on to Sukhumvit Road.

“How can we bring justice to people like Pai? I think we really need to talk about this once all political prisoners are released. We have to help them come back and live in society again,” Chonthicha said after the event. “We can’t just leave them to suffer by themselves.”

Published @NewNaratif

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Thailand’s Urban Refugees, Migrant Workers and Stateless People

Yasar Tamim family

Yasar Tamim’s family at their apartment in Thailand.

BANGKOK – The stench inside Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Centre is indescribable. The guards give detainees bright orange t-shirts – with a phone number printed on the front – to wear when they enter the IDC reception area.

About a dozen visitors line up on the opposite side of a fence separating them from the detainees. A guard paces between a one-metre-gap in the fence to keep an eye on everyone.

Yasar Tamim, 43, walks up slowly with a look of dejection on his face and his stomach protruding from the shirt. He’s a Syrian father of two with a family of six – including his sister-in-law and her two children – living together in Thailand.

“I was called and told to report to immigration,” Tamim said loudly so he could be heard over the din. “I’ve been in here before but this time they are denying me bail.”

Tamim has been held in detention for seven months. His wife and two children were detained in 2018 with him, but last January the Thai government released them under its international commitment to end the detention of children.

The entire family holds UN Refugee Agency identification cards proving their refugee status by the UNHCR in Thailand. But Thai police and immigration authorities don’t recognize these documents as legitimate.

The UNHCR in Thailand declined to be interviewed for this story.

Thailand is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention and views all refugees and asylum seekers as a threat to its national security.

The UNHCR in Thailand states there are around 7,000 urban refugees – like Tamim and his family – living in Bangkok. Asylum Access Thailand estimates the number is more than 8,000.

Many Thai refugee and migrants rights groups, as well as journalists covering the issue, believe the number is much higher – possibly in the tens of thousands.

“If there’s no lawful way for refugees to stay in Thailand than coming forward is an act of courage in itself,” said Emily Arnold-Fernandez, founder and executive director of Asylum Access.

“It’s always complex to count people who are living on the margins,” she added.

Refugees, migrants and stateless

It is estimated that Thailand has two million undocumented migrant workers.

According to UN statistics, there are 480,000 stateless people without any form of citizenship living in Thailand.

The Thai government wants to end statelessness by 2024, and has made commitments to assist those seeking refuge in Thailand.

But it still has no screening mechanism to identify and provide protection to refugees. This is left up to the UN.

There are currently 96,802 refugees registered with the UNHCR living in nine refugee camps located near the border with Myanmar.

Most of Thailand’s Syrian refugees and asylum seekers arrived at Bangkok’s main airport. They received tourist visas at immigration and entered the country legally. But the wait to register as refugees sometimes takes several years.

The Thai government still has no screening mechanism to identify and provide protection to refugees.

This means they must overstay their tourist visas, which is against the law. If they do so, they risk arrest, detention and possible deportation by Thai authorities.

Tamim arrived in Bangkok with his family six years ago, fleeing the Syrian civil war. He has been arrested and detained at the Suan Phlu IDC several times. But he’s always been able to receive bail in the past.

He uses the bail paper as proof of identification with Thai police. This allowed him to stay out of the IDC long enough to find work and support his family.

Now that he’s locked up and unable to earn an income, his wife and two children sell home cooked Syrian food every Friday at a local mosque. They are able to make enough money to keep the family safe inside their two-bedroom apartment.

But inside the IDC, Tamim said he’s been sharing a room with 100 other detainees. They sleep side by side and have one toilet to share.

“This is no place for children,” he added. “I’m glad my wife, daughter and son are no longer in here. But I miss them.”

Tamim believes there are over 1,000 people detained at the IDC. The former Thai immigration chief gave a press conference earlier this year pledging that 900 would be the maximum amount of detainees he would allow.

International pressure

Thailand’s refugee acceptance policy shifts according to pressure from the international community. The most recent example is Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed.

She arrived at Bangkok airport and demanded access to the UNHCR. Thai authorities immediately processed her request and she was granted refugee status in Canada within a week.

This news gave many refugees in Thailand hope the immigration crackdowns would cease and the government would adopt a more humane approach.

But refugee and migrants rights groups believe the Thai language media is unable to cover its concerns adequately or hold government accountable.

“You don’t see many refugee stories coming from Thai journalists,” said Paritta Wangkiat, a columnist at the Bangkok Post newspaper.

“If you look at young [Thai] people today they are more aware of democracy and human rights. Maybe in 20 years with the next generation things might change,” she added.

Tamim is hopeful a new Thai government – following the March 24 election – will at least allow bail to be reinstated so he can leave the IDC and go back to work to support his family.

“I can hardly sleep at night in here because there’s so much noise,” he said as the crowd in the Suan Phlu IDC reception centre got louder. “I just want to go home.”

Published @Medium

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A Syrian Refugee’s Journey – Southeast Asia Dispatches

KUALA LUMPUR – Syrian refugee Hasan Al Akraa has become something of a minor celebrity in his adopted home of Malaysia. The 19-year-old is a prominent face in the country’s refugee community.

Since fleeing the Syrian civil war with his family seven years ago, Hasan began raising funds online for refugees needing emergency medical assistance but many of his donors reacted negatively to an announcement he made last year. This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, March 25, 2019.

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Thailand 2019 Election Report – CBC The World This Weekend

BANGKOK – Many Thai voters are hoping for change as they wait on the result of their election. It’s the first held in eight years and the first since Thailand’s 2014 coup.

Millions of young people voting for the first time – hoping for the return of civilian rule – but early results showed the military-backed party is in the lead. This story aired on CBC The World This Weekend Sunday, March 24, 2019.

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Thais Head to Polls in 2019 Election – CBC World Report

BANGKOK – Thailand goes to the polls Sunday. It’ss the country’s first election in eight years and follows the military seizing power in 2014.

This story aired on CBC World Report Saturday, March 23, 2019.

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Thailand Election Drama Unfolds – Southeast Asia Dispatches

BANGKOK – Almost five years since the military seized power in a coup, Thailand is finally gearing up for its general election March 24 – the first in eight years.

Many Thais fear the election will not be free and fair as the military junta has founded its own political party to keep former General Prayut Chan-ocha on as prime minister of Thailand.

This has pitted pro-democracy parties against pro-military candidates in an election seen as a foregone conclusion to many observers. This story aired on Southeast Asia Dispatches Monday, March 11, 2019.

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Political drama in Thailand as long-delayed election nears

Constitutional Court to meet next week as Thai Raksa Chart faces ban over Princess Ubolratana nomination.

Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol Pongpanich holds up an application for Princess Ubolratana to run as prime ministerial candidate. The party now faces a ban [Athit Perawongmetha:Reuters]

Thai Raksa Chart party leader Preechapol Pongpanich holds up an application for Princess Ubolratana to run as prime ministerial candidate. The party now faces a ban [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Bangkok, Thailand – With Thailand’s long-delayed elections just over a month away, a court ruling is expected to deal a major blow to parties loyal to ousted ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and tip the scales in favour of the country’s military government – even as many voters appear weary of the generals after five years of army rule.

The Constitutional Court on Wednesday is expected to dissolve Thai Raksa Chart following the party’s shock but failed nomination of Princess Ubolratana – the king’s older sister – as its candidate for prime minister in the March 24 polls.

Pheu Thai, the main pro-Thaksin party, may also later find itself be guilty by association, according to political analyst Supalak Ganjanakhundee, managing editor at The Nation.

“It may not be too difficult to link the two parties together. Some members of Thai Raska Chart came from the Pheu Thai party,” he said. “I anticipate the military will find some measure to block Pheu Thai [before the election] because it’s seen as a threat.”

The Pheu Thai party declined to comment.

Two weeks ago, Thai Raksa Chart stunned Thailand when it put forward Princess Ubolratana, who became a commoner after marrying a US citizen in 1972, as its candidate for prime minister.

Although Ubolratana returned to Thailand after getting a divorce, and is now known as a TV star and actress, the monarchy is said to be above politics and is protected by strictly enforced laws on lese-majeste.

Thailand’s Election Commission swiftly disqualified her candidacy, saying the nomination was unconstitutional and hostile towards the monarchy. The move came after King Vajiralongkorn said it was “improper and highly inappropriate” for a royal family member to delve into fractious Thai politics.

Meanwhile this week, Thai police said they were also seeking the prosecution of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of Future Forward – a party pitched at younger voters making its electoral debut next month – over a speech shared online in June last year criticising the military.

‘Total control’

Parties connected to Thaksin, a telecoms tycoon, have dominated Thai politics for nearly two decades.

But two of the 19 coups that have taken place since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, have replaced pro-Thaksin governments.

Pheu Thai won the last elections in 2011 but was usurped by a coup three years later when the current military government – the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – seized power from Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin.

Thai Rak Thai Party, Pheu Thai’s predecessor, was dissolved in 2007 following the ousting of Thaksin himself in a coup a year earlier. The party’s next incarnation, Palang Prachachon, was dissolved by the court in 2008.

“We don’t know whether we’ll be able to make it to the polls or not,” said Umesh Pandey, member of the Thai Raksa Chart party.

“We are fighting against a regime that seized power five years ago. They have total control of how things are run.”

After taking control of the country and tightening the military’s hold over politics, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is now trying to also become an elected prime minister through the Phalang Pracharat Party.

The 2017 military-drafted constitution almost assures the generals continued control of the National Assembly.

The 500 members of the lower house will be chosen by both direct vote – 350 seats – and party list – 150 seats – from across the country’s 77 provinces.

The military will appoint a panel to select all 250 members of the upper house so only 126 elected members would need to support Prayuth as prime minister and extend the military’s hold on power.

Red, yellow and orange

Overall, there are 77 political parties that have registered for the polls.

The two oldest are the Democrat and Mahachon parties, but most are newcomers – like Future Forward – hoping to appeal to voters no longer interested in the divisive colour-coded politics of the past.

Future Forward’s orange triangular logo is said to be the result of mixing yellow-shirt royalists and red-shirt Thaksin supporters. Its leader, Thanathorn, a successful business tycoon, has been likened to Thaksin.

“Our main policy is to amend the constitution,” said Sirikanya Tansakun, policy director at Future Forward. “We want military reform to stop this endless cycle of military coups and disruptions in governance.”

Like Future Forward, Pheu Thai’s “Next Gen” and the Democrats “New Dem” social media campaigns are targeting young Thai voters with videos and messages.

They are all vying for the backing of nearly seven million first-time voters to put an end to one of Thailand’s longest periods of army rule, pledging to reverse the military government’s policies.

Chulalongkorn University student Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal is one of them.

The 22-year-old made headlines in 2016 after a public spat with Prayuth over his refusal to kowtow along with other university students before a statue of King Rama V.

“I will go campaigning to get more people to vote,” he told Al Jazeera.

“I support the democratic camp. I think young people are definitely going to vote and kick out the NCPO.”

Published @AlJazeera

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