Shrinking space for Thai human rights defenders is beyond the point of crisis

The treatment of Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak—and up until yesterday, Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul—along with five others in pre-trial detention for violating Thailand’s draconian lèse majesté law, has raised alarms among human rights groups, partially because Penguin is in deteriorating health due to an ongoing hunger strike.

As their applications for bail have been repeatedly denied by the Court, it has become clear that the lives of activists have become secondary to the social norm of remaining completely silent on the sensitive topic of monarchical reform.

According to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, since November more than 80 activists have faced legal action for violating Article 112 or lèse majesté. The trials and tribulations of human rights defenders in Thailand have shed additional light on an unsustainable, protracted national crisis. The physical, political, and legal space for human rights defenders, political activists and supporting institutions has nearly evaporated—and their environment grows more bleak with each passing moment. 

While the current focus remains on university-age protest leaders languishing behind bars, the intimidation of secondary school protesters should not be forgotten. Late last year, police officers were deployed to schools to intimidate students who took part in pro-democracy protests. School officials were pressured to punish students who wore white ribbons on their backpacks or who flashed the three-finger salute in solidarity with their older counterparts.

Police went as far as to pressure the families of students to force them to cease their activities and teachers were ordered to monitor their students for their political views and activities. Some high school students were charged with violating Thailand’s Emergency Decree on public gatherings. While these practices have seen diminished attention due to a decline in the number of pro-democracy protesters, intimidation measures against high school students are likely to continue.

In the corporate realm, Thai companies have abused the country’s judicial processes to harass and silence those with the temerity to speak out against exploitative labor and other troubling practices. In the case of the poultry company, Thammakaset many human rights defenders face dubious defamation cases when raising concerns about working conditions. The most famous case was that of Suchanee Rungmuanporn, who posted information on Twitter about Thammakaset’s labor rights violations and characterized the company’s policies as “slave labor.” While her case was ultimately dismissed, there were, as of last year, almost 40 criminal and civil actions by Thammakaset against 22 people. 

Commonly called “SLAPP” cases, or strategic lawsuits against public participation, even UN human rights experts have raised alarms to the United Nations Human Rights Council over these repressive measures. In 2020, Thammakaset filed criminal and defamation complaints against individuals who have shed light on human rights abuses. According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, between 1997 and 2019, over 2000 SLAPP cases have been brought before Thai courts. The number of SLAPP cases is concerning, but while the issue is that the legal action is often baseless against the human rights defender, the costs for participants are high. When defendants do not have the financial resources to defend themselves, their only recourse is to pay any damages and retract their negative comments toward the company. 

Outspoken critics of the Thai regime have suffered terrible fates. The most famous case is that of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a pro-democracy activist who had been living in exile in Cambodia since the May 2014 coup d’etat. In June of last year, he was abducted by a group of armed men and forced into a black SUV. Wanchalearm has not been seen since then. There has been no indication that Thai authorities worked with the Cambodian government in a joint or parallel investigation. Instead in the Prayut era, authorities have taken bolder steps to pursue activists that have led Thailand. While the Wanchalearm case has garnered the most international attention, many other dissidents have mysteriously disappeared. The mutilated bodies of Chatcharn Buppawan and Kraidej Luelert, aides of Surachai Danwattananusorn, also a regime critic, were found disembowelled and stuffed with concrete along the Mekong River border with Laos.

The fates of Thai citizens are often placed into the hands of institutions who advocate for their protection from the state. Yet the Thai institutions that protect, defend, or advocate on the behalf of human rights defenders are under attack. Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission or NHRCT was mandated by the country’s 1997 Constitution, or “The People’s Constitution” and was formally constituted in July of 2001. It wasn’t long after its inception and after the 2006 coup d’etat that the Commission began to experience problems with interference. Since the military seized power in 2014, the power of the NHRCT has badly eroded. 

In 2015, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions downgraded the NHRCT because the Thai regime manipulated the selection process for commissioners to ensure that regime-backed candidates would be approved. Later, the 2017 NHRCT Act removed the last ounce of independence of the Commission, transforming it into a mouthpiece of the regime, as it required the NHRCT to “clarify and report facts when there are incorrect or unfair reports on the human rights situation in Thailand.” Divisions between the pro-government commissioners and those pledging to remain independent led to the resignations of Tuenjai Deetes and Angkhana Neelapaijit from the seven-member panel, who complained publicly about new rules and policies that kept them from working independently. The status and stature of the NHRCT has never been so precarious.  

Today, organizations that advocate on behalf of human rights defenders in Thailand, like the Internet Law Reform Dialogue, (iLaw), face grave consequences. In September of last year, iLaw submitted to Parliament a bill to amend the Constitution backed by more than 100,000 people. This kind of advocacy for democracy and human rights would come under threat if the proposed Draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations becomes law. If passed by Parliament, Thai NGOs would be forced to register with the Ministry of the Interior, and be bound by rules and regulations that may force them out of existence. Further, the draft NGO law treats certain groups unfairly, particularly those that might voice dissent at the government. Those associated with unregistered groups could face as much as five years in prison or fined as much as 100,000 Thai baht

Thailand’s position relative to the rest of the world remains in flux, but there is a considerable trend toward a global decline in civil and political spaces over the past decade. Maina Kiai, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association called the deterioration a “global clash between tyranny and self-determination” that is occurring both at the national levels and in the halls of international organizations like the United Nations. Protection for human rights defenders and the institutions that protect and monitor human rights in Thailand is on the decline, but it will take a significant impetus from Thai society to reverse this terrifying trend. The political, legal, and physical spaces that are consistent with a free and open society are nearly gone.


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