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.
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.”