Since a military coup in 2014, citizens in Thailand face the risk of being jailed for decades if they express any kind of dissent against the government. This week, Human Rights Watch published an investigative report surrounding the government’s treatments of citizens it accuses of spreading misinformation and inciting violent unrest against the government.
Thailand has one of the strongest lèse-majesté laws in the world, where those convicted of criticizing the monarchy in any form can be sentenced to prison for up to 15 years for individual charges, according to Aljazeera. This ‘criticism’ can be extremely inane—Patnaree Chankij, mother of Sirawit Seritiwa was charged because she gave a “non-committal response” in response to an activist making anti-royal comments, as HRW notes in their report. The Washington Post reported in 2017 that before the military coup on May 22, six people were in prison for lèse-majesté charges and over the following 21 months, 90 people were arrested, and 45 of them were facing multiple convictions and prison sentences of up to 30 years.
It is not only for criticism of the monarchy that people can be sent to jail—any kind of criticism of the government is treated in the same way, with Thailand’s broad sedition law. Earlier this month, the opposition party were holding seminars around Thailand to gauge public opinion on the Thai constitution, and these were deemed to be “inciting unrest” by the government, and police were told to investigate sedition charges against these politicians according to the Jakarta Post. As the current Prime Minister of Thailand, Prayut Chan-ocha put it, “No one can oppose me. If they still don’t learn that, they will be detained again and again.… I might tape their mouths shut, too.” Prayut was voted in as the Prime Minister of the new civilian government earlier this year, where the elections were rife with cries of rigging in the favour of the military.
Any kind of peaceful protest criticizing the government is seen as a criminal offence in Thailand, where Thai authorities claim that any kind of dissent is a threat to national security, as Amnesty International’s Thailand campaigner notes. Social media is also monitored, where cyber-surveillance is weaponized to keep citizens quiet—recently, the government issued a new law where cafes are required to keep the browsing history of customers who use their Wi-fi on file, for the new “anti-fake news” centre that the government is establishing to analyze, according to the Guardian.
In the 1990s, Thailand became known as a burgeoning democracy that respected free speech, and that protected the value in the country’s constitution. The government will be telling a lie about the state of human rights in Thailand if it continues trying to cling to that ideal. When people are arrested for simply sharing foreign articles about the monarchy, as Jatupat “Pai” Boonphatthararaksa was, or for discussing traffic congestion caused by a royal motorcade as the Chiang Rai Times reports, then that society is not a democratic one. If the Thai government wants any chance of being seen as a functioning democracy it needs to stop the arbitrary arrest of its citizens, just for exercising their right to express their opinions. If this continued suppression continues without alleviation, then there is a chance that protests will become more violent if even peaceful protests are seen as crimes because then protestors have nothing to lose.
The United Nations has condemned the Thai government for these extreme laws—in Thailand’s last Universal Periodic Review, Thailand accepted the recommendations to bring domestic law into accordance with international law on human rights, and respect freedom of the press and free expression. However, it is yet to implement these recommendations, showing it does not take its place as a democracy in the international system seriously. For a democracy to work, freedom to express peacefully political views is one of the pillars it stands on. Without that, it is a dictatorship that can only engender violence and conflict. The international community has not been as pressing on the Thai government as it should be, meaning many human rights violations have occurred widely unnoticed or condemned.
It is difficult for foreign countries to formulate an appropriate response to fix this problem, lest they been seen as interfering in the sovereignty of the Thai government. But, a government that runs on the silencing of its citizens is not truly democratic, and cannot be called such. The Thai citizens that have already faced convictions and prison sentences are truly brave and admirable, but without more incentive for the Thai government to listen, their cries for true democracy and protection of freedom of speech may not be heard. In their report, Human Rights Watch has a list of recommendations for the exact laws that the government would need to change to fix their draconian restrictions, as well as other recommendations that they would need to implement. More of this kind of pressure from human rights groups is needed. But, there needs to be a stronger response from the international community as a whole. The international response to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong is an example of what could be done. The U.S. recently passed resolutions condemning Beijing for their brutal treatment of protestors, and foreign legislators could do something similar with the Thai government. Pressure needs to be built so that the Thai government is worried about losing its standing in the international community. This could include economic sanctions, to affect its place in the market or political sanctions by the various global organisations that Thailand is a member of.
Thailand is becoming a big player in the international forum, and many good things are coming out of the country. If it can back up its promises to honour the rights to freedom of expression with real action, then it could be the democracy it sets itself to be. A country running on suppression can only keep going for so long. Tension builds up, and people turn to stronger measures to achieve their goals, which can turn violent. If people’s voices are not heard in Thailand, then there is a real danger of this coming to pass.