Can it be free and fair as expected?

Monitoring harassments against politicians after the lifting of the ban on political activities ahead of the election

Despite the 11 December 2018 issuance of the Head of the NCPO Order no. 22/2561 to lift restrictions on political activities despite the promulgation of the Royal Decree on the election, anti-junta politicians continue to face harassment and restrictions in various forms. Most poignantly, the judicial process continues to be used as a tool of harassment. This has left the 2019 election shrouded in doubt, and with many questions looming as to whether or not it will be conducted in a free and fair manner.

In response to proposals by various political parties to cut the defense budget and revoke the military draft, the Commander-in-Chief, Gen Apirat Kongsompong, has recommended that politicians listen to the song Nak Phaen Din” (“The ungrateful traitors). This song was broadcast by the military radio network and by security agencies in the past to stir up hatred against student activists, and contributed to one of the most heinous massacres of the students at Thammasat University on 6 October 1976. Gen Apirat Kongsompongs reaction was widely reported by the media and is tantamount to intimidation and harassment against the politicians.

The militarys intimidation and harassment against politicians is a common phenomenon, particularly in the aftermath of the 2014 coup. Immediately after seizing power on 22 May 2014, the NCPO began to summon individuals to report themselves. Since that time, the NCPO has issued a total of 37 summonses, targeting 472 individuals. Of this number, 172 were politicians. In addition, other persons who have been playing an active role have also been summoned and detained including former MPs and local politicians. In each province, individuals have been required to report themselves at the military barrack without authorities having issued official summonses. Several of these individuals have been deprived of their liberty in the military camp for up to seven days. Upon their release, they have been required to sign an agreement which prohibits them from travelling abroad, organizing political activities and supporting any political activities.

A politician reporting himself as instructed by the NCPO on 24 May 2014

The violation of the NCPO summons, failure to report oneself and a breach of release conditions are an offence according to the NCPO Announcements. Violators have to stand trial in Military Courts and can be imprisoned as a result. This strategy has been used as a tool to muzzle freedom of expression of politicians, particularly members of the Pheu Thai Party whose power has been seized by the military. Until now, certain politicians have faced freezes on their financial transactions as a result of their failure to report themselves  while others have chosen to exile themselves to avoid such restriction.

Certain politicians who have defied the restrictions and continue to criticize the NCPO or to express their political views have been subjected to attitude adjustmentor detention in a military barrack on several occasions, most notably the cases of Mr. Pichai Naripthaphan (eight times), Mr. Watana Muangsook (six times), Mr. Jatuporn Prompan (six times), Mr. Nattawut Saikua (five times), etc. Some have faced legal action as a result of breaching their release conditions and several other charges aimed at curbing their resistance to the NCPO, including the violation of the Penal Codes Section 116 (sedition), the Computer Crime Act, the Head of the NCPO Order no. 3/2558 (political gathering of five persons and upward) as well as the Penal Codes Section 209 (being a member of secret association), Section 210 (conspiracy) and the Constitutional Referendum Act 2559.

Pichai Naripthaphan being summoned again on 20 January 2015 (Picture courtesy of VoiceTV)

In addition, the militarys harassment mission has extended from surveillance to meeting regularly with the anti-Junta politicians, even those who have opted to roll back their political activities after their first summons.

During the campaign to crack down on influential persons, the NCPO has also targeted national and local politicians. They have become targets for searching private property invoking the Head of the NCPO Order no. 13/2559.

Most importantly, apart from the NCPO Announcement no. 7/2557 which banned a political gathering of five persons and upward punishable by imprisonment, the order of which was later replaced by the Head of the NCPO Order no. 3/2558 which similarly bans a political assembly, political parties are also prohibited from organizing any activities in line with the NCPO Announcement no. 57/2557. This order bans a meeting of the organization and their political activities including the registration of a new political party, and has frozen support from the Fund for Development of Political Parties since 22 May 2014. Even after the Organic Law on the Political Parties 2561 (Organic Law on the Political Parties) has become effective on 8 October 2017, political parties continued to face a ban on their activities since both the NCPO Order and Announcement were still applicable. Worse still, the NCPO had issued the Head of the NCPO Order no. 53/2560 to amend the Organic Law on the Political Parties in order to reinstitute a ban on political partiesactivities.

Even non-political activities have also been subject to the ban as they have been interpreted as being political. For example, the planned launch of the book Destroying Rice Pledging Scheme, but Slathering Peasantson 25 March 2017 was cancelled by the order of the authorities invoking the Head of the NCPO Order no. 3/2558.

Apart from muzzling anti-junta activism, the harassment and restriction of freedom of expression, public assembly, and the mobilization of politicians and political parties in the past four years under the rule of the NCPO also aims at discrediting politicians and political parties which are a basic element of democracy. It has paved the way for an increasing role of the NCPO and non-elected and extra-constitutional powers to make inroads into Thailands politics by claiming they are not associated with politicians. After all, restrictions imposed on political parties are restrictions on the freedom of people who want to participate in politics as well.

Nevertheless,  on 11 December 2018, the same day the Organic Law on the Election of Members of House of Representatives 2561 became effective, the NCPO has invoked Section 44 of the 2557 interim constitution to issue the Head of the NCPO Order no. 22/2561 to repeal nine NCPO Orders and Announcements which ban political activities. Apart from allowing people to conduct political assemblies, it has effectively allowed politicians and political parties to meet and organize political activities without having to face legal action in the lead up to the elections.

Still, it is a far-cry from the freedom of expression and assembly exercised by individuals living in other democracies. In reality, the NCPO and the authorities have implemented measures to stifle the exercise of freedom by the people (Please see report Restrictions and harassment remain: Public assemblies in January and before the elections). Similarly, efforts have been made to harass and interfere with activities by anti-junta politicians and political parties as compiled by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights as follows:

The situation in the aftermath of the lifting of the ban on political activities prior to the promulgation of the Royal Decree on the Election

During her campaign and her meeting local supporters of the Pheu Thai Party in Sri Saket on 13 December 2018, after the lifting of political ban to allow political parties to organize activities, Ms. Sudarat Keyuraphan, Pheu Thai Partys senior member told the press that her political campaigns have been plagued by difficulties and she was subject to routine surveillance by the military and the police. In addition, an effort has been made to prevent local people from meeting up with the party. Government officials threatened locals with budget cuts if they continue to come to meet Pheu Thai Partys politicians. Similarly, during her rally in Chiang Rai on 9 January 2019, Sudarat has found two plainclothes officials who claimed to be police officials continuing to monitor her activities and took pictures of her from the first stop she made until the last one at the restaurant. Sudarat further revealed that every time she meets local people, the police are always there to monitor, even during her campaign at the sport stadium of the Phayao Provincial Administration Organization on 10 January 2019.

The officials keeping taking photo of the Pheu Thai Partys senior member during her political campaign in Chiang Rai (Picture courtesy of Khao Sod)

Meanwhile, the Democrat Party Leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva spoke on 15 January 2019 noted that during his political campaigns a number of officials have been sent to monitor the events. According to Abhisit, since all the bans have been lifted, such intimidating acts or any action that make people feel skeptical have to be stopped.

Apart from surveillance at the campaign rallies, attempts have also been made to approach the politicians at home. On 16 January 2019, Watana Muangsook, a Pheu Thai Partys senior member, wrote a Facebook message stating that four military officials in camouflage fatigues have approached Mr. Thawatchai Sutthibongkot, Pheu Thai Partys Deputy Secretary General at his home in Bang Na. Although the NCPO spokesperson explained that it was simply a regular mission to reach out to people in various communities to get informed about their problems, and that officials simply made a stop at Thawatchais house to meet and greet him, Thawatchai insisted that  the military officials have made a visit to him at home once or twice a month regularly. This attests to an ongoing effort by the military to conduct surveillance despite the lifting of the ban.

A Future Forward Partys candidate for Nakhon Pathom, Ms. Jumpita Chankachorn, has come out to reveal that since her public launch in November 2017, local police have visited her at home telling her that they had received an instruction to maintain her safety. The officials also asked about her personal information and information about her family. In early January 2019, she was visited by officials from the Nakhon Pathom Provincial Police again. Apart from inquiring about her personal information, they asked her to answer a questionnaire for information concerning the individuals who supported her and information about her canvassers. Again, they claimed to approach her for her safety. But Ms. Jumpita noted that if such documentation by the officials had only been conducted specifically on the Future Forward Party, it could be construed as an act of intimidation to cause her fear.

The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights has also received reports that the offices of the Future Forward Party in some provinces have been visited by both the military and police officials who were there to ask for various kinds of information including their political activities, their political campaigns, the recruitment of memberships, the number of members in the province, etc. The officials have even gone to monitor the party officers when they recruit members on site.

Meanwhile, the Kian Partys Leader, Mr. Sombat Boonngamanong wrote a facebook message saying that two police officials were instructed to look out from the entrance to the room where he was invited to speak at Thammasat University on 20 January 2019.

In response to these situations, Gen. Apirat Kongsompong in his capacity as Secretary General of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) said in an interview on 15 January 2019 that the military have been monitoring and observing political campaigns of all parties simply to facilitate and ensure safety of the events. But during the meetings with army commanders of the Royal Thai Army, Gen. Apirat has stressed the mission to maintain public order prior to the election.” According to him, since lifting the political ban, political activities have started their smear campaign against each other. The military therefore monitor the movements of political groups to assess signs of misbehavior.”

Harassment against politicians and concerned persons also includes a search of their private property. Based on information from an interview given by the Pheu Thai Partys spokesperson, Ms. Laddawan Wongsriwong, the partys candidates in various constituencies complained about their residences having been searched by the authorities.

The judicial process has also been used as a tool to harass and discredit certain politicians and political parties. For example, Mr. Pornchai Srisuriyanyothin, a candidate of the Pheu Thai Party in Burirum was arrested by the police based on a court warrant in a case related to mortgage fraud. The arrest took place while Mr. Pornchai was about to speak in a political campaign along with other senior members of the party on 7 January 2019. In another case, the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) summoned senior members of the Thai Raksa Chart Party to give them information on 16 January 2019 after they had flown to meet with the former Prime Minister, Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra in the UK during his birthday party in late July 2018. The ECT wanted to know if the party was subject to the domination of an outsider.

It was also reported on 8 January 2019 that the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) was about to reinvestigate a case which implicated Mr. Chatchat Sitthiphan when he was Minister of Transportation during the Yingluck Shinawatra government. It concerns the scheme approved by the cabinet to offer financial compensation to those affected by political assemblies during 2005-2010 and the 3,500-billion-baht-water management project. The case was to be reinvestigated as it appeared from reports that Mr. Chatchat was one of three prime ministerial candidates of the Pheu Thai Party. Nevertheless, the Chairperson of the NACC has come out to deny the report and confirmed that no attempt had been made to accelerate any investigation prior to the election.

Even if the political parties can now make political campaigns, restrictions remain including the denial of permission to use public facilities. As reported, the permission for the Pheu Thai Party to use the sport stadium of the Phayao Provincial Administration Organization (Phayao PAO) on 10 January 2019 was abruptly cancelled even though the permission had been given. In cancelling the permission, the Phayao PAO claimed it was inappropriate to use public facilities for political activities since it might give more advantage to certain political parties over others. Sudarat Keyuraphan also disclosed that in the past month, such problems had happened many times. On the same day, the Pheu Thai Party was denied permission to use the public sport stadium, the Palang Pracharath Party was given the permission to campaign at the Wongkarnchana Technology College in Dok Kham Tai District.

Permission by the Pheu Thai Party to use a public facility for political campaign being revoked all of a sudden by the Phayao PAO (Picture courtesy of Khao Sod)

In response to the situation, Gen Prawit Wongsuwan said in an interview that no permission will be given to launch political campaigns in a public facility and all political parties will be subject to the same standard. His words are taken as instructions imposed on the authorities despite the fact that during previous election campaigns political parties have been given permission to use either the Provincial Sport Stadiums or Sport Stadiums in Educational Institutions since they are public facilities which should serve a common use.

Political parties are not just disallowed from campaigning in public facilities, they are barred from using Buddhist temples as their campaign ground as well. On 30 August 2018, the Sangha Supreme Council of Thailand issued a notification to prohibit using a temple for public assembly, for a seminar or for organizing any activities which could be illegal including political activities claiming it was a breach of the purpose of the temple. This could explain why a temple in Muang District, Khon Kaen, has prohibited a candidate of the Pheu Thai Party from speaking to their supporters in the temple on 29 December 2018 and as a result, they have had to move their platform from the temple.

Restrictions have extended to the installation of campaign billboards of political parties. On 10 January 2019, Mr. Suwan Thongkroy, a candidate of Prachachart Party in Prachuab Khirikhan revealed that he was asked by security agency officials to remove his small campaign billboard bearing the statement Do not support the proliferation of power, do not support a military coup, do not support Gen Prayuth as Prime Minister.” He was told the statement is inappropriate and it has caused concern among certain high ranking military officials in the province. Mr. Suwan insisted on not taking down the billboard saying it is not against the law. There has also been a case that a candidate of Pheu Thai Party in Nakhon Ratchasima who was forced to remove his large campaign billboard installed at a privately owned property near a market. According to Mr. Kosol Pattama, his party had obtained permission from the land owner. But later, subject to pressure from authorities, the land owner asked the Pheu Thai Party to remove the billboard.

Prachachart Party asked to remove one of its campaign billboards (Picture courtesy of Matichon)

Apart from harassments and restrictions by the authorities, certain politicians and political parties have been subject to harassment by unknown persons. For example, the vehicle of “Pauline” or Pinit Ngampring, a candidate of the Mahachon Party, was intruded and searched by an unknown man with a cropped haircut and wearing a green T-shirt and her personal documents were tampered with. The incident took place when her car was parked in Soi Ramkhamhaeng late at night on 15 January 2019. The injured party believed it could have stemmed from her political activities. In another case, a candidate of the Future Forward Party in Lampang was threatened by phone by an unknown person. She was told to withdraw her candidacy otherwise she might face consequences. This is yet to mention the cases of campaign billboards of various parties including the Future Forward Party and the Thai Raksa Chart Party. It is not possible to pin down the underlying motive whether it has been related to politics or mere personal grievance.

One month after the promulgation of the Royal Decree on the election

The 2562 Royal Decree on the election of members of the House of Representatives was promulgated on 23 January 2019, and was followed by the ECT’s declaring of the election date on the same day. It means from 23 January until 24 March, the election day, the military junta and the ECT are obliged to facilitate and ensure all political parties can launch their political campaigns fully and equally, and to ensure people in all constituencies have access to necessary information including the qualification of the candidates, the political partiespolicies and their prime ministerial candidates, etc. This information will be helpful for the people when they make their decision at the polling stations to determine their future.

On the contrary, we have found political campaigns during the one month leading up to the election have been fraught with surveillance and restrictions being imposed on politicians and political parties, not different from before. For example, military officials from the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) have been stalking a Pheu Thai Partys senior member during her political campaign in Nonthaburi on 26 January 2019 from morning to evening. The officials kept taking still photos and videos of Sudarat who has vented out frustration over this pressure and harassment which interfered her work.

Another trend is the use of criminal proceedings. It has been reported that inquiry officials of the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD) were rushing to conclude their investigation and have submitted their report to the public prosecutors who will make a decision on the indictment in the case against Mr. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Leader of the Future Forward Party and two other Future Forward Party executive members and the case against Mr. Pichai Naripthaphan, Thai Raksa Chart Partys senior member. The four of them are alleged to have inputted false information into a computer system which may compromise national security and public safety per the Computer Crime Acts Section 14(2). All these criminal proceedings have resulted from the exercise of the right to freedom of expression to offer a critical political view and to disseminate information to the public in 2018.

The Future Forward Partys senior members giving an interview after meeting the public prosecutors (Picture courtesy of Prachatai)

In another case, Mr. Ruepob Shinawatra, the Thai Raksa Chart Party’s Deputy Leader was similarly charged per the Computer Crime Acts Section 14 (2) after launching a website to monitor air pollution offering a real time particulate matter measurement and a demonstration of how to use the air pollution application.

In another incident, the ECT has received complaints urging them to file a motion with the Constitutional Court to have the Thai Raksa Chart Party and Palang Pracharat Party disbanded as a result of their proposal of prime ministerial candidates. Even though both party dissolution complaints have been filed by the general public; the ECT tends to treat them differently. For the proposed dissolution of the Thai Raksa Chart Party, the ECT has promptly decided to file the dissolution motion with the Constitutional Court , three days after receiving the complaint whereas the complaint against the Palang Pracharath Party has failed to draw any action from the ECT yet. It has caused much outcry as a result. Mr. Ruangkrai Leekitwattana, a member of the Thai Raksa Chart Party has said that the decision reached by the ECT was in breach of the procedure since it has failed to first investigate the case and failed to have its political party registrar officers compile evidence and submit it for the consideration of the ECT.

Of late, the ECT has also apparently tried to reign in the political campaign of some political parties. In his personal Twitter account, Mr. Lertsak Kumkongsak, the Commoners’ Party’s Leader, has posted on 23 February 2019 that the ECT in Loei Province asked the Party to change the content of its advertising spot by deleting the words military despotand shackle.” Mr. Lertsak insisted, however, that he would not have the words removed. As a result, the ECT in Loei Province has via a letter summoned the Partys candidate for a meeting claiming the content of the advertising spot is not in compliance with Article 8, second paragraph of the Regulation of the Election Commission on Criteria and Political Campaign Advertisement of Members of the House of Representatives 2561.

(Picture courtesy of The Commoners’ Party facebook fanpage)

As a result of the interview given by Gen Prawit in which he prohibited political parties from using public facilities for political campaigning, it has led to another restriction being imposed on political activities. It has now become more difficult for certain political parties to find a venue to launch their political rallies. The government offices also find it difficult to take a stand on this issue. For example, the Pheu Thai Party has asked for permission to launch their political rallies in Udonratchathani. While the director of one school has given them permission to use the schools meeting hall, the director of another school has denied them permission citing the need to be politically neutral. It has also been reported that the Palang Pracharath Party was able to launch its political rally in the Provincial Sport Stadium of Samut Prakan.

Most of the parties face a similar situation in terms of the vandalism being written on their campaign billboards installed in various places. In most cases, the police have failed to catch the culprits. Those who have been caught doing this have apparently committed the acts out of their drunkenness, their stress and their personal disgust over certain political parties.

Even though people are looking forward to the first election in five years and expect it to be free and fair, given all the aforementioned situations, it is clear that the Thai people will not be able to have a proper electoral process based on good principles, guided by sound regulations and in compliance with constitutional procedure. The Organic Laws on the Election which have been written under the whim of the NCPO seems to have helped them cement their power and fail to reflect the genuine desires of Thai constituents.

Nevertheless, it is still important and necessary to monitor the situation with less than a month before the election and to call on authorities concerned with the election to uphold the principles that make a free and fair election possible. This can help people to genuinely chart the course of their future and would ensure the election can be effective during the transition to democracy.

 How to monitor the election