Ordinary people are still treated as a “target” despite the forthcoming election

The promulgation of the Royal Decree for the Election of MPs BE 2562 on 23 January 2019 should have set a positive tone for the state of rights and freedoms in Thailand. Instead, harassment and criminal prosecutions against people continues unabated. It has not happened to only politicians or MP candidates: ordinary people have to bear the brunt as well. This climate has become all-too-familiar during the last five years under the rule of the NCPO junta in which people have been treated as “targets of surveillance” even with the 24 March 2019 election fast approaching.

A copy of document presented by Kiatburut Phanlert which supports his claim of alleged election fraud and which has led to him being a target of surveillance: Picture courtesy of Prachatai

From a Yasothon millennial to a rookie worker in Rangsit

At 21, Kiatburut Phanlert earned his living as a lottery seller. Lately, the man from Loeng Nok Tha district, Yasothon posted a video on his personal Facebook account about alleged election fraud on 23 December 2018. As a result, he has become a target of harassment by the state along with several other people who have flagged such alarming irregularities during the election campaign.

Kiatburut noticed how local officers had set up tables for local residents in his village to get registered and receive State Welfare Cards. All the villagers were asked to produce their ID cards, household registrations and had their photos taken. Then, as a prerequisite to receive the State Welfare Card plus 100 baht of cash, the villagers had to apply as a member of the Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), the pro-junta party. Kiatburut asked in his video if such practice is election fraud or not.

It should be noted that the alleged practice could be a breach of Section 30 of the Organic Law on Political Parties 2017 which prohibits political parties or any individuals from, directly or indirectly, giving, offering, or promising to give money, valuables, or any benefit to another person to solicit the person to apply as a member of political party, save for the entitlements or benefits a person is supposed to have as a party member.

His flagging has, however, failed to yield a prompt investigation over the alleged fraud. On the contrary, he has since been subject to targeted surveillance; officers have been looking for him and visiting him at home and asked for his personal information. (For more information, please see The uploader of video clip exposing scandalous welfare cards denying being subject to attitude adjustment, though having been inquired about those backing him)

Shortly after the case of Kiatburut, on 25 December 2018, Ekkaphat Klangklang, Chairperson of the Democracy Village in Ubonrat district, reported that a sign bearing the name “Democracy Village” at the entrance of Ban Bor, Tambon Ban Dong, Ubonrat district, Khon Kaen, had been removed by a combined force of military, police and administrative officers. Ekkaphat himself became a subject of interrogation led by the Superintendent of Ubonrat Police Station as a result of the inauguration of the Democracy Village. The village sign post has since been seized as the authorities claim it is illegal, though there has been no report that Ekkaphat has to face any charge.

On 11 January 2019, Suwanna Tallek, a political activist, announced that police visited a factory of Triumph to meet executive members of the labor union who had been charged for their campaign during the referendum on the Draft Constitution 2017. This happened when the Royal Decree for the Election of MPs was yet to be promulgated, and concerns were rife that the election could have been postponed yet again (for more updates on this case, please see Awaiting decision on court jurisdiction in Bang Sao Thong referendum case as the act was apparently not a breach of the ban on political assembly). It happened amidst rampant intimidation and harassment against those who have come out to oppose the postponement of election, resulting in the physical assault of an activist (for more updates on this case, please see “Ekkachai” being subject to repeated assaults, quietly).

Cancelling the screening of 10 Years Thailand claiming it might violate the law

Home visits, internal censorship, blacklisting and surveillance of students and academics

In the aftermath of the publishing of the Royal Decree for the Election of MPs 2019 in the Government Gazette on 23 January 2019, the impression that “targeted surveillance” would shift primarily to politicians or MP candidates was premature.

In reality, a large number of people continue to face harassment continuing the climate of harassment and intimidation of 2018 which saw a series of public assemblies organized by groups demanding elections. Based on our documentation of human rights violations during that time, the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) has found people who have come out to urge the government to hold the election promptly as promised have become targets of surveillance and criminal proceedings initiated by the security agencies. Most of them have been subject to “home visits” by the authorities including many members of the group demanding election (for more information, please see Operation Home Visit against people who demand election turning on the heat in Thailand\).

The two following incidents happened with members of the Thai Academic Network for Civil Rights (TANC). First, Associate Professor Anusorn Unno has written in his personal Facebook a post entitled  “Welcome the announcement of election day”, and continued that the Deputy Superintendent of a local police station called to inform him that he has received instructions to monitor movements related to the election. In his post, the Associate Professor has replied to the police saying, “Actually, it is not necessary to monitor me privately, as all activities I organize are out in the open and you may monitor me from that.” On the same day, security officers of the housing project in which the Professor lives called and informed him that the police have come to his home again in the afternoon but found no one there.

Around the same time, another member of TANC reported that, “Five fellows with a list of names and photos visited me in my housing project. They all wore crop haircuts and told me they had studied at Thammasat University. They said they want to have a talk with me and ask where I live. After taking my photo, they left.  Well, if it was an official visit, they should have notified me in advance and come to meet me at my office. By simply turning up at the location of my home address indicated in the house registration just caught an old soldier like my father off guard. He has nothing to do with my work.”

Home visits by the authorities aside, other academics have been reined in by their superiors in the university including Associate Professor Weerachai Phutdhawong who has come out to criticize the 2019 election. According to Matichon Online, “After a well-known lecturer of Kasetsart University posted #SoFair! to take a dig at the appointment of Gen Prawit as Chairperson of the Committee to short-list senatorial candidates, he received a phone call from a person in the upper echelon of the university who asked him to be more careful when expressing his political view. Well…..#SoFair!”

Students have also been affected. The fourth year students of Public Administration Department, Faculty of Anthropology and Sociology, Lampang Rajabhat University, were organizing a public seminar on “Decentralization and the Future of Thailand” with presentations by fourth year students and the screening of ‘Ten Years Thailand’ on 18 February 2019 within the campus.

After publicizing the event, the students have invited the President to give an opening speech, but he has assigned the Vice President to be there on his behalf. Later, the Vice President contacted the students asking to be able to review issues to be raised during the event fearing they might be in contravention of the election laws as they may work negatively or positively to particular political parties. As the Dean of the Faculty of Anthropology and Sociology was aware of the planned film screening and realized content of the film had not be subject to a thorough review, he decided to call off the film screening in order to avoid consequences.

The Phetchabun Rajabhat University’s administration has decided to call off a public debate of MP candidates after being criticized by the Election Commission for offering such public venue for political use, arguing that doing so might taint its impartiality. On 18 February 2019, Assistant Professor Dr. Prayoon Limsuk, the University President, told the press that as an arrangement was made for organizing a public debate of MP candidates from various political parties, he has inquired by letter the Phetchabun EC about guidelines for holding such activity inside a university campus. He was then advised to be cautious about lending a public venue for such a purpose since it might draw criticism on its impartiality.

The aforementioned examples of harassment include home visits and internal censorship commonly faced by students and academics in Thailand. What about foreign academics who have to travel to and from Thailand as a researcher?

From TLHR’s documentation, the unique harassment faced by a number of foreign academics includes being watch-listed and subjected to surveillance. They may find it more challenging to travel here and to express themselves these days (for more information, please see Four international academics having be detained by the Thai Immigration after signing a public statement during the Thai Studies Conference).

Penguin and co organizing a ritual to offer chili and salt to Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha

Stalking and prosecution

The following cases reflect harsher forms of harassment. Most cases begin with sending someone to stalk and then to file charge against the individual targets. Despite the revocation of the Head of the NCPO Order no. 3/2558’s Article 12 which banned a political gathering of five persons and upward in December 2018, and mindful that the political gatherings which have been banned for nearly five years since the 2014 coup are no longer ‘culpable’, the authorities have resorted to other laws to pressurize and prosecute people.

On 5 February 2019, Yamaruddin and Khanitphat along with another fellow students from Thammasat University’s Lampang Campus have gone to meet some police officers in a coffee house in the university. The plainclothes officers were waiting for them there, one of whom identified himself as “Sergent Nui” from the Police Intelligence Unit while another officer introduced himself as coming from Hang Chat Police Station. The remaining three officers failed to identify themselves.

The meeting took place as Yamaruddin and other students appeared to flash three fingers and photobombed Wissanu Krea-ngam, the Deputy Prime Minister when he was giving an interview to the press at the Lampang Rajabhat University after the mobile cabinet meeting on 15 January 2019. It was reported then that the security authorities were tracking the students down. Apparently, an unknown number of plainclothes officers from unidentifiable agencies have approached the College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Thammasat University’s Lampang Campus to look for the students but could not find them there.

Similarly, during the traditional and annual football competition between Chulalongkorn University vs Thammasat University in early February, the authorities banned any parodical parade to make a mockery of Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, Head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and prime ministerial candidate of the Palang Pracharat Party. On 3 February 2019, a Thammasat University student told Thairath that while preparing for the event, unknown men who looked like plainclothes officers were found lurking around the Rangsit Campus of Thammasat University. They were keeping a watch on the students’ work to build mock life-size models. Six individuals who claimed to be officers have even approached the Student Affairs Division and the politics-mocking parade team to warn them against making a mockery of Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Penguin and co” eventually faced criminal prosecution as a result of their organizing a ritual to offer chili and salt to Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha on 2 February 2019 at the Government House. The two students, Parit Chiwarak, aka ‘Penguin’ and Tanawat Wongchai, were nabbed by police from Nang Lerng Police Station for calling on Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha to resign as Prime Minister in a ritual performed with salt and chili hung by the fence of the Prayuth’s office. Both Parit and Tanawat were charged for organizing a public assembly without notifying the authorities as required by the Public Assembly Act 2015.

In a similar vein, Sirawith Seritiwat, aka ‘Ja New’ was charged on 9 February 2019 by police from the Muang Nonthaburi Police Station for organizing an activity to protest against an attempt to postpone the election at the Nonthaburi pier on 11 January 2019. The inquiry officer charged him for organizing an unauthorized public assembly as the authorities which were notified of the event had refused to give permission, claiming the demonstration would disrupt the traffic at the pier. In the same offence, three suspects including Shinawatra Chankrachang, Panyarat Nanthaphusitanon and Pimlapat Kiatnok had already been charged on 25 January 2019.

During the election campaign, one of the most controversial and debatable policies pitched by political parties is to take a cut of army budget and divest it to bolster the economy. The policy has drawn criticism from the Commander-in-Chief, Gen Apirat Kongsompong, who told the politicians who proposed the budget cut to listen to “The Ungrateful Traitors,” a song used by ultra-right wing movements to stir up nationalism during the Cold War. The Commander-in-Chief’s strong criticism has also drawn out responses and it has given rise to another round of judicial harassment as many people involved have been slapped with criminal prosecutions.

On 20 February 2019 at the entrance of the Headquarters of the Royal Thai Army, police from Nang Lerng Police Station have apprehended Parit Chiwarak and Tanawat Wongchai after they and other students read a public statement to protest against the playing of ‘The Ungrateful Traitors’ at the instruction of Gen Apirat Kongsompong. They were charged for organizing an unauthorized public assembly per the Public Assembly Act 2015.

On the same day, the police have put in custody “Ekkachai-Chokchai” after they played RAP Against Dictatorship at the entrance of the Headquarters of the Royal Thai Army in response to the instruction reportedly made by the Commander-in-Chief to have military camps play ‘The Ungrateful Traitors’. Police from Nang Lerng Police Station have apprehended Ekkachai Hongkangwan and Chokchai Paiboonratchata and seized a teddy bear used during their demonstration as the two activists were playing RAP Against Dictatorship to protest against the Commander-in-Chief’s instruction to have ‘The Ungrateful Traitors’ played.

They were then charged for organizing an unauthorized public assembly per the Public Assembly Act 2015. Other charges filed against them include unauthorized use of amplifiers and speakers per the Control of campaign using Amplifiers 1950. The two students denied the charge regarding the unauthorized public assembly while pleading guilty to the charge concerning the use of the amplifier. The inquiry officer then charged them 200 baht as a fine and let them go as well as giving the teddy bear back to them.

Public Statement no. 2 “Look for Truths and Stop Harassing Investigative Journalists, the investigation report on the budget for publishing “Pracha Rath Build the Nation”

Strike Hard on Fake News Sharing while media still muzzled

Restrictions on expression of political opinions continue even though such expression is made without taking to the street. The case in point is the Technology Crime Suppression Division (TCSD)’s arrest of 11 individuals as a result of their sharing report that the army is about to increase military conscription to four years.

On 24 February 2019, Matichon reports the case of Mr. Somchai (last name withheld) and Ms. Churairat (last name withheld) and nine other individuals who have been put in custody and made to appear during a press conference at the TCSD. They are accused of violating the Computer Crimes Act 2017’s Section 14 (2) and (5) from sharing report that the Commander-in-Chief, Gen Apirat Kongsompong, and the Prime Minister, Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, are about to extend the period of military conscription from two to four years. The report was published by jookthai.com and it indicates on the webpage that Mr. Somchai owns the website, though he is not the person who published this report.

On 4 March 2019, Col Burin Thongpraphai, legal officer of the NCPO, has reported the case to the police regarding the sharing of a report that “Gen Prawit drank coffee worth 12,000 baht per cup.” Later, Pol Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn, Chief of Immigration Police, has said in a press conference that six persons have been found to have spread and shared the fake news and they are accused of violating the Computer Crime Act’s Section 14 (2). Four suspects have turned themselves in to answer to the charge whereas two others will be summoned later.

As the political campaign has intensified and the election is drawing near, the general public, academics and students as well as media have to face more acts of harassment including the following two cases. The NTBC issued an administrative order to suspend broadcast of VoiceTV for 15 days. The order was made based on the recommendation by the Subcommittee Supervising Broadcasting Programming and Content after their reviewing of the operation by VoiceTV. It is recommended that its broadcasting license be suspended for 15 days starting from 00.00 on 13 February 2019. The Subcommittee claims VoiceTV has committed 34 violations and it has been reprimanded by the NTBC’s administrative order several times including five latest orders. The NTBC therefore finds it appropriate to suspend its license this time.

The act of harassment has also extended to journalists who investigate the excessive printing cost of “Pracha Rath Build Nation,” a book by the Palang Pracharat Party. The incident took place on 4 March 2019 and the Thai Lawyers for Human Rights has received reports of a public statement entitled, “Look for Truths and Stop Harassing Investigative Journalists, the investigation report on the budget for publishing Pracha Rath Build the Nation”, written by Rapeephan Sayantrakul which can be summarized as follows:

“I was intimidated by a young man who had his face hidden after I had started my investigation on the budget used for printing the book “Pracha Rath Build Nation.” The printing process and the content of the book reflect a conflict of interest in terms of the position and mandate of a prime ministerial candidate. An attempt has thus been made to review the objectives to print the book “Pracha Rath Build Nation” and ask if the EC has ever investigated the case, even though the Palang Pracharat Party maintains “the books are for sale, not for free.”

From our documentation, the acts of harassment and intimidation have taken place in many forms including home visits, asking for personal information, being included in a watchlist, and the use of criminal prosecution, all of which violate people’s rights and freedoms. It should be noted that even in the aftermath of the promulgation of the Royal Decree for the Election of MPs 2019 on 23 January 2019, the authorities continue to seriously target ordinary people and the political climate has not been relaxed to accommodate the forthcoming first national election since the 2014 coup.