Thai Protests Continue In Defiance Of Government Ban

In the biggest challenge for years to an establishment long dominated by the army and palace, protesters are calling for the resignation of the government, the drafting of a new constitution, and an end to the authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Some of the protests included demands for reforms to curb the king’s powers.

Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha declared a state of emergency in Bangkok on October 15, asserting that escalating protests by pro-democracy groups contravened the law and the constitution, threatened the monarchy institution, caused disturbances, harmed national security and public safety, and undermined measures to curtail COVID-19.

The Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation empowers Thai authorities to impose broad censorship in violation of the right to free expression and media freedom. On October 16, the police issued several warnings against news reports and social media comments critical of the monarchy, the government, and the political situation in the country. Livestreaming pro-democracy protests were declared illegal, as well as posting selfies at a protest site.

The decree also grants the authorities broad powers to arrest people without charge and detain them in informal detention sites, such as military camps. Officials carrying out the duties under the decree have legal immunity. Any public gathering of five or more people is now banned in Bangkok.

“By sending in the police to violently disperse peaceful protesters, Thailand’s government is embarking on a wider crackdown to end the students’ protests,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of the Human Rights Watch. “Invoking the Emergency Decree gives the police the green light to commit rights abuses with impunity.”


How did the protest movement begin?

Thailand has a long history of political unrest and protest, but a new wave began in February after a popular opposition political party was ordered to dissolve. The order followed elections in March last year – the first since the military seized power in 2014 and the first chance to vote for many young people and first-time voters. The elections were seen as an opportunity for change after years of military rule.

Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who had the all-important support of the military, was re-installed as prime minister. The pro-democracy Future Forward Party (FFP), with its charismatic leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, garnered the third-largest share of seats and was particularly popular with young, first-time voters. But in February a court ruled the FFP had received a loan from Mr. Thanathorn, which was deemed a donation, making it illegal – and the party was forced to disband, prompting thousands of young Thais to join street protests.


International criticism of government response

“What’s happening now in Thailand is an outright blatant abuse of emergency powers to crack down on fundamental freedoms and shield those in power from any form of legitimate criticisms,” said Charles Santiago, Chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions about human rights, political reforms, and the role of the monarchy in society. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for the peaceful expression of their views. In addition, over the past five months, the authorities have used emergency measures to help control the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists.

Lucy Xu