Arrests and Imprisonment: the fate of political dissidents in Thailand

Thailand’s relationship with democracy, since the 1932 Siam revolution, is not one characterized by consistency. Since the country’s move away from an absolute monarchy, coup d’etats and an ever changing constitution have become more or less commonplace. Along with the ongoing political turbulence, politically motivated arrests, imprisonment or even physical assault have all had an alarming presense in Thai politics. After 2006 military coup, there was an increase in political division in Thailand and with that division came a rise in using legislation as a weapon against activists. Additionally following the 2014 coup, over 1844 civilians were tried in military court, many of these cases were politically motivated with defendants facing charges for violating lese majeste, sedition law or NCPO decrees which prohibited the political gathering of 5 or more people. 
 
This type of crackdown on opposition is not unique to the most recent 2014 coup, but the 2014 coup did lead to the highest number of lese majeste prisoners. Lese majeste laws are laws that criminalize anything considered insulting, defaming or threatening to the King, Queen, Heir Apparent or Regent. Thailand has some of the harshest lese majeste laws in the world with 3 up to 15 years jail term for each offense, and in recent history these laws have been weaponized as a way of silencing political dissidents. The violation of lese majeste laws more often leads to pretrial detention and severe sentencing when compared to other politically motivated charges. then other Somyot Prueksakasemsuk is one example of a high profile lese majeste case. Somyot was in prison for 7 years after being charged with violating lese majeste laws. Somyot was the editor for a Redshirt magazine which published two satirical articles that were deemed insulting to the King of Thailand. Somyot’s case gained significant international attention and prompted campaigns by human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
 

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Somyot during his interview with iLaw 25 June 2019 
 
It is not only lese majeste laws though that have been used to justify arrests and jail time for the politically vocal, the Computer-related Crimes Act and sedition laws have also been used to target politically active citizens and even member of opposition parties. Section 14(2) of the 2007 Computer-related Crimes Act criminalized computer importing of false information that could “damage the country's security or cause a public panic”. In 2017, Section 14(2) of the Computer Crimes-related Crime Act was amended to have an even more expanding violation list including false information “likely to cause damage to the maintenance of national security, public safety, national economic security, or infrastructure for the common good of the Nation, or to cause panic amongst the public''. One high profile use of this law were the charges laid against Future Forward Party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit for a facebook live video criticising the junta backed Palang Pracharat Party. Thanathorn’s case has yet to go to court, but the case of Nurhayati is an example that does demonstrate how these laws are used to imprison people. Nurhayati is a blind woman who was sentenced to two years in prison for using a voice-assisted application to post a link to a radio programme that was hosted by a redshirt activist. The public prosecutor claimed her action was a threat to national security and could cause public panic. This was Nurhayati’s second time in prison following a previous lese majeste case, during that trial she was mysterious bailed out by an unknown guarantor, this time her sentence was halved after she pleaded guilty.
 
Sedition law in Thailand have a similarly extensive use to the Computer Crimes Act, Section 116 of the Criminal Code which set maximum jail term at 7 years, also known as sedition, lists prosecutable violations against the internal security of the kingdom - “To bring about a change in the Laws of the Country or the Government by the use of force or violence, To raise unrest and disaffection amongst the people in a manner likely to cause disturbance in the country or To cause the people to transgress the laws of the Country”. The unfortunate ambiguity of this section has lead to its use in a wide variety of cases. In 2015, a 77 years old retired civil servant was arrested under sedition laws for giving flowers to the leader of a public demonstration which protested against an NCPO order.
 
Sedition laws, lese majeste laws and the Computer-related Crimes Act all have a history of being used with varying severity. Sometimes these charges are dismissed in court, causing bearable inconvenience, while in other cases it results in years, sometimes decades in prison. Those who are imprisoned for their political speech or actions face conditions in prison that are reported as violating human rights. Thai prisons on many accounts fail to meet international standards set by the UN. As reported by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), overcrowding, poor sleeping conditions, insufficient water sanitation, lack of accessible medical care, exploitative prison labor and punishments sometimes amounting to torture are just some inhumane condition Thai prisoners live with. Additionally, following the 2014 coup, military authorities arrested and detained hundreds of civilians at military bases (pg 30 FIDH report). These arrests were politically motivated and the use of temporary detention facility in military bases means there is a lack of accountability and transparency around what has and does go on in these spaces. The deaths of two prisoners and allegations of toture raise obvious concerns in regards to the activities taking place in these facilities (ibid pg 33-35), which independent monitors do not have access to (ibid pg 31).
 
The criminalization and imprisonment of political dissidents has many effects on Thai activist today. It serves as a threat to vocal political opposition, but additionally it socially isolates political activists and alienates them from any audience. After the 2014 coup, it became commonly enforced that Thai prisoners submit a list of only 10 people who may come to visit them, in some cases all 10 were required to be family members sharing the same last name. In a 2017 FIDH document, one prisoner reported only being allowed to send and receive letters from those on their pre-submitted lists. This practice of unreasonable restriction on outside communication has been reported as more severely enforced in the case of political prisoners ( ibid pg 29). Of course, the lack of outside communication allowed for these prisoners suspends their capacity to continue any wide reaching activism. 
 
The social isolation that Thai inmates experience also contributes to the overwhelming stigma they face. Artist Prontip Mankong organized an art exhibition from 26 April - 2 June 2019 titled “Planet Krypton” from, Prontip is a previous political prisoner herself and her art exhibit featured stories from her experience in prison and platformed the challenges faced by fellow inmates. During a panel discussion following the exhibit, Prontip and five other women who were featured in the work held a Q and A. A repeated theme of the Q and A was the debilitating stigma the women faced after leaving prison. Difficulty maintaining employment, harassment by people in their own community and in some cases abandonment by their own family, where all experiences these women spoke on.
 
The significance of this stigma is important in the cases of political prisoners because it not only impacts the way political prisoners are viewed and treated but it also impact the way their political ideas are viewed. With so many democracy defenders being imprisoned under lese majeste laws, their ideas are associated with criminality and social deviance. In conversation with previous political prisoner Somyot Prueksakasemsuk, Somyot explained that people in prison for violating lese majeste often even face stigma by other inmates. Whether intentional or not, the use of criminal action as a way of punishing political dissent does have an effect on how these ideas are viewed in a society that by many accounts places high value on lawfulness.
 
While the persecution of activists through weaponized legislation continues, a new method of silencing outspoken opposition has also gained attention recently as well. Throughout and following the 2019 election, a pattern of brutal attacks on those who speak out against the NCPO has come to fruition. In May 2019, Anurak ‘Ford’ Jeantawanich, an anti-junta activist, was attacked by 6 men outside his own home on the way to protest the partisan electoral system. He was hit on the head with a metal pipe and suffered additional injuries to his face, knee, and the back of his right hand. Later, in July 2019 Sirawith Serithiwat or “Ja New” an anti junta activist was also attacked twice in the same month, both times he was hospitalized with serious injuries. This type of bodily harm against prominent activists has become increasingly common and some worry that as cases of political imprisonment decline, the NCPO instead is turning to physical threats to silence dissent.
 
Punishing Thai citizens for political expression is repressive, and though Thailand's recent election does symbolize a move in the direction toward democracy, punitive reactions to dissent continues to prevent a free and fair political system. While acknowledging that politically motivated imprisonment has been on a downward trend since 2017, tedious legal trials continue with prevalence and patterns of physical assault against activist has been on the rise. Meanwhile, peoples who taking part in We want to Vote campaign are still standing trial in the courts for violating several laws including sedition and Public Assembly Act. People of Thailand has not yet fully enjoy its rights and freedom guarantee by the Constitution. 
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