Restrictions and Harassments Remain: Public assemblies in January and before the elections

January 2019 was yet another month awash with intense political furore. Groups in various parts of Thailand have taken to the streets clamoring against the postponement of the elections. Such public outcries stem from uncertainty around the date of the next elections rousing fear that they might be cancelled or even annulled. 

Towards the end of 2018, both the government and the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) insisted that the next elections would be held on 24 February 2019 and it was expected that the Royal Decree for the Election of Members of Parliament would have been promulgated just after the New Year. However, in the wake of the announcement that the coronation ceremony will take place between 4-6 May 2019, the government has alluded that it will ask for the postponement of the elections claiming they might interfere with the royal ceremony. The Royal Decree for the Election of MPs to designate the election date has not yet been issued as expected.

Amidst uncertainty and vague promises for more than 20 days, alas the Royal Decree for the Election of MPs was promulgated on 23 January 2019 and the ECT fixed the election date for 24 March 2019.

Public assemblies conducted early this year have continued following the repeal of the Head of the NCPO Order no. 3/2558’s Article 12 banning political assemblies of five persons and upward in December 2018. As a result, political assemblies banned for more than four and a half years following the coup are no longer “culpable.” 

This has not spelled the end of restrictions and surveillance of political activities, however. The NCPO and the authorities continue to act in many ways to curb the exercise of rights and freedoms as demonstrated in situations related to many public assemblies by pro-democracy groups over the past month. 

A public assembly to oppose the postponement of elections at Victory Monument on 6 January 2019 (Photo courtesy of Banrasdr Photo)

At least 41 public assemblies to oppose the postponement of elections throughout the country

According to the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR)’s documentation from 1 – 23 January 2019, there have been at least 41 public gatherings in 21 provinces throughout the country to oppose the postponement of elections.

Regionally, the Central Plain and the Northeast each saw such gatherings in six provinces including Bangkok, Ayuthaya, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakan, Nakhon Pathom and Pathumthani in the Central Plain; and Khon Kaen, Ubonratchathani, Mahasarakham, Sakonnakhon, Nakhon Ratchasiman and Udonthami in the Northeast.

Public gatherings took place in four provinces in the North including Chiang Mai, Phayao, Phrae, and Chiang Rai, three provinces in the South including Nakhon Si Thammarat, Songkhla, and Pattani and two provinces in the East including Rayong and Chonburi. Bangkok is the province that saw the highest number of public gatherings, eight in total. 

Police officers monitoring a public assembly at Victory Monument on 6 January 2019 (Photo courtesy of Banrasdr Photo)

Meanwhile, there were at least three public assemblies or press conferences by groups opposed to the elections or groups hostile to the pro-democracy groups including the press conference of the Ramkhamhaeng Student Council, the gathering of the Staying United Before Elections Group and the National People’s Revolution Council for Peace and its petitioning to the ECT to demand an annulment of the Royal Decree for the Elections.

Methods of harassment and restrictions imposed on the assemblies

Even though political assemblies are no longer ‘culpable’, the authorities continue to impose measures to restrict and interfere with the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly and to conduct political activities. Diverse methods have been used including; 

1. Public Assembly Act 2015 invoked to deny the right to freedom of assembly, to detain or to prosecute

Enacted by the NCPO-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLS), the Public Assembly Act 2015 has been used as a tool to stymie the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly. Previously, it had been used along with other gag rules against political assemblies and is still applied now. It is required by the law for “notification” to be made to the Superintendent of the Police Station that has the jurisdiction prior to a public assembly at least 24 hours in advance. It does not require an application for “permission”, though (please see Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR)’s briefing Tips about public assembly).

Police officers in some jurisdictions, however, decided to grant permission to such assemblies including to the Network of Young Generation in Nonthaburi who called for a gathering to oppose the postponement of elections at the Nonthaburi pier and at the Office of the ECT on 11 January 2019. The organizers of the event had already notified the Nonthaburi Police Station by letter prior to the public assembly, but the authorities replied by saying they “did not allow this public assembly to happen.” After the gathering had taken place, the police officers summoned four organizers to answer to the charge of “holding an unauthorized public assembly.” 

The gathering to oppose the postponement of elections in Nonthaburi on 11 January 2019

In another activity on 7 January, Ekkaraj Udomamnuay, a merchant, shaved his head and undertook a fast to demand the announcement of the election date. He was escorted away by the police from his protest site at the Victory Monument and brought to the Phaya Thai Police Station. It was claimed he had failed to notify the authorities about his assembly at least 24 hours in advance. Even though no charge was pressed against him, it prompted him to change his location and time for his solo activity to the Ratchaprasong Intersection on 8 January.

Ekkaraj Udomamnuay later released from the Phaya Thai Police Station (Photo courtesy of Thapanee Ietsrichai)

In certain cases, the police officers have refused to acknowledge public assembly notifications even though they are required to do so according to the Public Assembly Act. One example of this was the gathering of students from Khon Kaen University on 16 January. When the organizers of the assembly had initially notified the Superintendent of the Moung Khon Kaen Police Station, the police refused to acknowledge such notification claiming such event may breach the Land Traffic Act and it might prompt someone to report cases of traffic obstruction. The organizers were told to notify the University authorities instead. Only when the students made the second attempt to notify the police about their event. The police did acknowledge it.   

TLHR has been informed about another activity to oppose “the postponement of elections” by another civic group and members of political parties in the North. In this case, the police also summoned the organizers to answer the charges for failing to notify them about the assembly in advance. 

2. Authorities acknowledging the public assembly and imposing conditions to restrict freedom of assembly

In many instances, even though the authorities do not prohibit a public assembly, after receiving the assembly notifications they have imposed various conditions to restrict the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly, for example;   

  • Being told to relocate the assembly, even though authorities have no power to instruct the demonstrators to change their venue. For example, in the case of Burapha University’s students who wanted to organize an activity to oppose the postponement of elections on 17 January, after notifying the Saen Suk Police Station were told by the police to change the venue of their assembly from in front of the university to somewhere else. Authorities claimed the University administration denied them permission to hold the activity there. The organizers, however, insisted that no instruction had been made by the university to disallow the event there. Still, the organizers decided to move their assembly to inside the University.
  • Being told to change the time and reduce the duration of the assembly, for example the demonstration by students and academics in Ubonratchathani on 13 January. After notifying the police about their intention to hold a gathering between 17.00-21.00, the organizers were told by the police to reschedule their event to 15.00-16.00, even though it was not the intention of the organizers to do so. Invoking fear of provocateurs, authorities claimed they could instigate a commotion and it would make it difficult for them to maintain peace and order. Thus, they had asked the organizers to change the time and duration of their demonstration to what the police had proposed.
  • Being told to limit types of activities during the assembly including not to walk, but staying put in one place. Students and people in Chiang Mai who wanted to hold a Walk to Vote activity on 9 January had planned to walk from Wat Phra Singha to Thaphae Gate, but the organizers were told by the police that they were only allowed to gather at the Thaphae Gate and were disallowed to walk, claiming it could have impacted other pedestrians. 
  • Being told to refrain from anti-government and anti-NCPO activities involving the Head of the NCPO Order no. 3/2558, for example, the Walk to Vote event at the Thaphae Gate. The authorities told the organizers of the assembly and imposed on them conditions preventing them from carrying out any activity which could breach the Head of the NCPO Order. They were told to not hold any anti-government and anti-NCPO banners.
The public assembly inside the Burapha University on 17 January 2019

3. Misdemeanor laws have been used to prosecute or restrict freedom of assembly

In several cases, assembly organizers have been required to seek permission to use amplifiers from District Offices in Bangkok or Municipalities or District Offices in the province, creating additional burdens for them.  Such misdemeanor offences have been strictly imposed in order to criminalize or restrict public assemblies. 

During the public assembly at the Ratchaprasong Intersection in Bangkok on 8 January 2019, after the assembly ended the police summoned the organizers and threatened to press charges against them including for using amplifiers without permission. The organizers were then fined for the unauthorized use of amplifiers. 

Police officers cracking down on the demonstrators to make an arrest of individuals accused of using amplifiers louder than the limits on 13 January 2019 (Photo courtesy of Khaosod Online)

Towards the end of the gathering at the Ratchaprasong Intersection on 13 January 2019, dozens of police officers closed in and examined the use of amplifiers. It was alleged that the amplifier was turned on louder than 115 decibels. The police intervention led to a scuffle with the protesters which caused some injuries. Following this, the officers took away the sound system and invited the organizers to the Lumphini Police Station even though they explained to the police that the sound was not launder than the legal limit. Still the officers insisted on seizing the sound system and making a record of the incident. The equipment was only returned a few days later and no criminal charges were pressed. 

In addition, during the public assembly at Thammasat University on 19 January, the organizers alleged that their sound equipment vehicle had been intercepted by authorities since that morning and prevented from getting to the protest site. The sound systems used at both the gatherings at Thammasat and the 14 October Memorial were subject to strict control; officers from the Pollution Control Department and officers from the district’s environment division had been invited to conduct a loudness test during the demonstrations. 

4. Individuals being summoned to speak with military officers

Despite the revocation of the ban on political gatherings and the fact that military officers do not have the power to oversee public assemblies per the Public Assembly Act, military authorities continue to carry out political surveillance or even summon individuals to talk them out of organizing any political activity. 

For example, the demonstration of a women’s group in Khon Kaen was supposed to take place on 13 January in front of the Provincial Hall, but when the demonstrators arrived at the venue, they were summoned by the Internal Security Operations Command officers for a talk together with other provincial officers. They were told that they had not asked for permission to hold the demonstration and such a demonstration should have taken place anywhere except a government facility. The demonstrators against the postponement of elections thus decided to move to hold their activity in front of a shopping mall, which is a private area.

Women’s group in Khon Kaen holding a demonstration in front of the Computer Plaza building on 13 January 2019 (Picture courtesy of Matichon Online)

In another instance, a member of the Commoners’ Party in Phrae Province held a protest banner by himself in front of the Phrae Provincial Hall on 13 January. Afterward, he was invited by military and police officers for a talk and the motorcycle he drove to the demonstration site was searched. As no illicit objects were found, he was allowed to return home. 

5. The military organizing activities to cause distractions and hindrances at the protest venue

For example, officers from the 33rd Military Circle organized a concert to fundraise to help people affected by the Pabuk Typhoon at the same time and venue as the Walk to Vote at the Thaphae Gate in Chiang Mai even though the organizers of the demonstration had already notified the authorities about their intention to hold the demonstration at the place. The military’s concert caused much distraction as it used a very loud sound system. 

Officers from the 33rd Military Circle organizing a concert at the same time and same venue as the Walk to Vote event on 9 January 2019

In another case, military officers came with water trucks from the municipality and squirted lots of water at the entrance of Khon Kaen University causing some inundation just before the students commenced their demonstration to oppose the postponement of elections.

Water being squirted just before the commencement of the gathering of Khon Kaen University’s students on 16 January

6. Being approached by government officers at home or work and being told not to participate in a demonstration

Just before any public assembly took place, particularly in Bangkok, it had been reported that police officers and Special Branch officers approached each core member of pro-democracy groups or previous participants at their residence. 

For example, just before the assembly of the pro-democracy group to oppose the postponement of elections at the Victory Monument Sky Walk on 6 January, the police and Special Branch officers had approached several core members including Sirawith Seritiwat, Anon Nampha, Punsak Srithep, Payao Akkhahad, and Amornrat Chokepamithkul to ask if they were going to participate in the event and to warn them against participating in the public assembly.

During the run-up to the public assembly to oppose the postponement of elections at the Ratchaprasong Intersection on 8 January 2019, several activists including Anurak Janetawanich and Punsak Srithep had been visited by Special Branch officers at their residences and asked about the assembly.

Similarly, just before another assembly at Ratchaprasong on 13 January 2019, more than nine pro-democracy protesters or activists had visited by officers at their residences or their offices. For example, two Special Branch officers asked to meet three labor unionists who work at the Triumph factory in the Bang Pli Industrial Complex to ask if they were going to participate in the event to oppose the postponement of the elections or not. The workers were told the city should be peaceful for now. 

Meanwhile, even after the end of the public assembly, some participants have been visited by the officers at their residences. For example, Acting Sub-Lt. Prasert Nguansuwan, a member of the Commoners’ Party in Phrae Province, three days after his solo protest in front of the Provincial Hall two Special Branch officers had approached him at home and asked him about his intention to participate in any public assembly. He was told if he wanted to participate in any such event, he had to first notify the officers. Participants who held banners to oppose the postponement of elections in Phayao Province also reportedly received phone calls from the officers who warned against participating in such public assembly.

Special Branch officers arriving at the residence of Acting Sub-Lt. Prasert Nguansuwan, member of the Commoners’ Party in Phrae Province

7. Surveillance and documentation of all public assemblies held by the organizers

Plainclothes military and police officers and uniform police officers continue to surveil public assemblies at varying degrees. They often take photos and videos of the events and carefully observe the whole duration of the event. 

Such surveillance by authorities is far from necessary for the maintenance of “safety” of the people. Instead, it clearly demonstrates their intention to collect information about the assemblies and their organizers. They even approached certain organizers for information or took photos of some individuals during the assemblies. The officers retain their view that such assemblies are an issue of “national security.” 

Activity inside Chiang Mai University on 18 January 2019

For example, just before the commencement of a public assembly to oppose the postponement of elections at the Faculty of Political Science, Chiang Mai University on 17 January, Special Branch officers have asked for names and phone numbers of the organizers and inquired about details of the event. Furthermore, during a public assembly in front of Khon Kaen University, police officers had set up a table and taken photos of the ID cards of all participants in the event invoking the Identity Card Act. They even insisted that anyone who had no ID card was barred from participating in the public assembly.

In another public assembly by the women’s group in Khon Kaen in front of a shopping mall, it was closely monitored by military officers, police officers and administrative officers. Plainclothes officers were roaming around taking photos of any person and media who were present during the public assembly. The officers even warned media against publishing news about the event. 

Officers setting up table to check ID cards of participants in a public assembly in front of Khon Kaen University

8. Several universities involved with the restriction of freedom of assembly

For example, students of Khon Kaen University who wanted to organize a demonstration submitted a letter to the University President asking for permission to use Bung Si Than Lake as the venue of their demonstration to oppose the postponement of elections. The Vice President replied by saying that “given that the issue might be involved with national security, the University cannot allow such event without prior approval from the security authorities.” As a result, the students had to move their demonstration to the front of the university.

In another case, students of Prince of Songkhla University’s Hatyai Campus wanted to organize an activity “#NoPostponement NoCencellation TimeUp” to take place inside the campus. But the organizers were summoned to meet with the university administration and were told since this activity was going to be organized by a University club, prior notification had to be made to the University. Even though the University disapproved of the activity, the students insisted on pressing ahead with it. So, they had to move their demonstration to another venue and had to change the name of the organization responsible. 

Banner saying “No activities are allowed inside the university without permission” hung up while the students of Burapha University were organizing the event to oppose the postponement of elections

As to Ramkhahaeng University, after the President of the Student Organization announced his intention to hold a press conference to support having the elections on 22 January 2019, the event was cancelled at the last minute just a few hours before it was going to take place. The University President who is a member of the National Legislative Assembly explained that he did not bar the event, but he had asked for cooperation from the students to not organize any event that might have led to political schisms outside the university.

Police officers monitoring activities in Silpakorn University on 17 January 2019

Even though spaces in universities and educational institutions are beyond the jurisdiction of the Public Assembly Act, plainclothes police and military officers have still gone inside to monitor, taken photos and videos of the events causing an unsafe climate for organizing any activities therein.