TLHR Overall Situation in February 2020

A month of the dissolution of the Future Forward Party (FFP) ruled by the Constitutional Court sparked criticisms and discontentment among FFP’s supporters– especially students and the young generation. Reportedly, students in more than 60 universities and schools across the country, using their university and school compounds, staged protests against the Court’s ruling, and the administration of the government, and also called for a democratic ruling and a Constitutional amendment. TLHR’s overall report in February 2020 covered the students’ campaigns and obstacles, the censure debate on the government’s information operations-related issues, charges on the computer-related crime of a famous Twitter user, and TLHR’s key case updates.

                    (photo courtesy of Future Forward Party)

Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve the Future Forward Party leads to student activisms

On 21 February 2020, the Constitutional Court read a verdict on the case filed by the Election Commission (EC) requesting the court to disband the Future Forward Party, the second biggest party in the opposition. The case stems from the 191 million Thai Baht (approx. USD 6,065,420) loaned to the party by its leader Mr. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The Court ruled that the money was in violation of Section 72 of the Organic Law on Political Parties B.E.2560 (2017), and issued a decision to dissolve the party and ban its 16 executives from participating in elections for ten years. The decision removed 11 MPs out of 16 executives from their office, rendering fewer seats in the opposition.

The court decision sparked criticism and unrest among Future Forward supporters, especially youth and students. In late February, in more than 60 universities and schools throughout Thailand, students took to the streets to protest against the government and call for a true democratic rule and amendments to the current constitution. Many protests were able to rally more than a thousand participants, with educational institutions being exempt under the Public Assembly Act.

In response, government agencies attempted to reduce the scale of protests or shut down the protests altogether. The Ministry of Education issued a letter indicating that students should refrain from participating in any activities due to the outbreak of COVID-19. The Basic Education Commission notified school directors throughout the country to monitor and examine the students’ political expression. The Royal Thai Police gave a press interview emphasizing that the protests must be carried out peacefully and must not affect national security or cause harm to the monarchy. Plainclothes and uniformed police were deployed at protests to monitor the gatherings and any illegal activities, facilitate the traffic and maintain public order.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) documented the presence of plainclothes police at almost all protests. The police took photos of the protestors and protest signs which, in some gatherings, featured content in relation to the monarchy. TLHR further documented the authorities’ attempts to interfere with or shut down the students’ activities as follows:

  • Disapproval of use of venue for gatherings Many universities and schools issued a disapproval of political activities within its venue, in both oral and written forms, including Bodindecha School and Suankularb Wittiyalai School (Nonthaburi province). At Ubon Ratchathani Rajabhat University, northeastern Thailand, student organizers were summoned by the university staffs who requested them to cancel the event. In fear that their activity might interfere with the faculty’s decision on grant proposals for a university camp, students agreed to cancel the protest. At Udon Thani Rajabhat University, university executives requested students to refrain from organizing a protest. However, students proceeded according to plan amidst the authorities’ presence.
  • Interference with planned activities in schools At some educational institutions, their executives did not disapprove or request the students not to organize political activities. Instead, they resorted to interference and pressure to counter the planned gatherings. At Dech Udom School, in northeastern province Ubon Ratchathani, the school closed all entrances in the attempt to bar students from holding their activity. Students later opted to proceed at a coffeeshop opposite to the school to draw and write protest signs.

                                  (photo courtesy of TLHR)

  • Ban of forums and request not to use speakers and symbols At Pibulsongkram Rajabhat University, in northern province Phitsanulok, student organizers were summoned by the university’s Vice Dean who requested them not to use the university’s name in the gathering and prohibited them from holding an event at a university venue. As a result, the students could not hold a high park as planned. At Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University, Bangkok, university staffs requested that students not use speakers or amplifiers during the gatherings. At Prince of Songkla University, Surat Thani Campus, in southern Thailand, university executives banned students from reading out statements or giving a speech at the protest. Students had to resort to writing signs to express their opinions. At Surat Thani Rajabhat University, student organizers were requested to not express any symbolic gestures or activities deemed political.
  • University staffs taking down student protest signs Authorities took down signs made by students at Naresuan University, northern province Phitsanulok, and Khon Kaen University, northeastern Thailand. At Maejo University, Prae Campus in northern province Prae, signs read “We Don’t Want Disctatorship” were taken down.
  • Harassment of organizers Following the protest, student organizers from Phetchabun Rajabhat University, in northern Thailand, were followed by plainclothes authorities to a restaurant outside of the university premises. The authorities questioned them about any planned activities, making student organizers feel unsafe. Authorities, reportedly with shaven head, also visited the residence of and followed the vehicle of protest organizers in Rayong province, eastern Thailand.

                              (photo courtesy of TLHR)

  • Checking personal information and identification documents At Nakhon Sawan Rajabhat University, northern Thailand, disease control checkpoints were erected at the gathering. Participants however were asked to write down their personal information, including first and last names, identification number, cell phone number, and affiliated group. As a result, many felt scared and did not sign up or participate the event.
  • Prosecution of organizers after the protest In some areas where students or organizers were unable to hold gatherings within the university premises, organizers have been summoned and charged with failure to notify the authorities. At Triangle Court Thung Na Choey, eastern province Chanthaburi, organizers were found in violation of failure to notify the authorities of the protest and failure to request a waiver for the protest notification, and therefore were fined for 5,000 Thai Baht (approx. USD 160). In some cases when the authorities have been notified, organizers were charged with the use of amplifiers without authorization. At the old City Hall, northern province Chiang Rai, following the protest organizers were summoned, charged and fined for 200 Thai Baht (approx. USD 7).
  • Threats of expulsion and bar from sitting in exam A Grade 11 student in Mukdahan province, northeastern Thailand, who criticized the school encouraged other students to wear black on Friday in protest of the current political situation was summoned to the disciplinary room. The teachers indicated that if he no longer wished to study at this school, he could simply leave. This incident led to a Twitter campaign in support with the student under #savepatcharapol. At Rajamangala University of Technology Isan, Surin Campus, northeastern Thailand, student organizers had to cancel the gathering due to a ban imposed by the university. The university stated that it lacked the capacity to assist should any complications arise, as well as difficulties in the students’ exams. As a result, the organizers canceled the event in fear of any interference with their exams.

Opposition exposes government’s Information Operations during censure debate

During the censure debate on 25 February 2020, Mr. Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn, MP from the defuncted Future Forward Party, provided information in relation to the government’s and the militaries’ information operations (known as IOs) used against human rights defenders, activists, political opponents, and public figures. Wiroj displayed an evidence includes official documents issued by the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) under the Office of the Prime Minister including official military memorandum issued by Second Army Area. There is also a video of an interview with a military officer who took part in the operation, conversation logs from a private line group that discussed using social media to disseminate fabricated information against government critics, and QR code shared within that private group. The incident led to public criticisms and outcry on social media platforms and a call for an investigation into and an end of the operations.

Police charge well-known Twitter user “Niranam_” with computer-related crime

                               (photo courtesy of TLHR)

On 19 February 2020, reportedly police, with search warrant from the Provincial Pattaya Court, searched the residence of Twitter user known as “Niranam_” (@ssj_2475), a 20-year-old Thai male living in eastern province Chonburi. Niranam was arrested and taken to the Pattaya police station, without an arrest warrant. The police later charged him with imparting false information onto the Internet that affects national security under Section 14(3) of the Computer Crime Act, for publishing an image and information about King Rama X. Niranam has more than 150,000 followers on Twitter and has published detailed stories of Thai history, especially in relation to the monarchy.

Police allegedly encouraged Niranam to confess that he was the owner of the said Twitter account and surrender the password to the authorities. On 20 February, after Niranam was held at the police station overnight, he was taken to the Pattaya Provincial Court. The Court refused to grant bail, after a submission of 100,000 Thai Baht bond (approx. USD 3,000), citing the severity of the charge. Niranam was remanded at a prison in Pattaya.

On 24 February 2020, Niranam’s relatives submitted second bail application with 500,000 Thai Baht bond (approx. USD 15,000). The Pattaya Provincial Court again refused to grant bail. On the same day, the defense appealed the decision to the Appeal Court Region 2 which later granted bail for 200,000 Thai Baht (approx. USD 6,000), citing that the penalty of the crime was not severe and the suspect unlikely fled.

The arrest and prosecution of Niranam led to public attention and online activisms to campaign for his safety under #SaveNiranam. This case falls under the trend of authorities utilizing the Computer Crime Act to prosecute individuals who publish information about the monarchy and are deemed in violation of the royal defamation offence (lese majeste) under Article 112 of the Criminal Code.

Key cases updates

  • Appeal Court finds activists Thepha guilty in two cases for their march

                        (photo courtesy of Thepha’s villagers)

On 4 February 2020, Na Tawee Provincial Court scheduled a reading of the Appeal Court’s verdict on the case against villagers from Thepha district, Songkhla province in southern Thailand. In November 2016, villagers marched on foot to submit a complaint to PM Prayuth Chan-o-cha requesting him to put a stop to a biopower plant proposal in Thepha district. Later authorities charged them with failure to notify the authorities of the gathering under the Public Assembly Act. The defendants were found guilty in the Court of First Instance.

The Appeal Court overturned the decision of the Court of First Instance and acquitted three suspects, seeing that they were also on trial in another case for similar charges. Another defendant, who is not on trial in another case, was found guilty and fined for 10,000 Thai Baht (approx. USD 300) per count, totaling 20,000 Thai Baht for two counts. The said defendant stated that s/he was not involved in the organization of the march.

On the same day, the Songkhla Provincial Court also read a verdict on the case against 17 villagers in relation to the march against Thepha biopower plant. The Court of First Instance found Defendant number 1 and 3 guilty for failure to notify the authorities of the gathering, and fined them 5,000 Thai Baht each (approx. USD 150). They were acquitted of other charges. The Appeal Court however found Defendants 1 – 4 guilty of failure to notify the authorities and fined them 5,000 Thai Baht each (approx. USD 150). The Appeal Court further found Defendants 1 – 17 guilty of obstruction and assault of government officials, and fined them 6,000 Thai Baht each (approx. USD 200). Defendant 17, who was a youth when the alleged crime occurred, face half the fine at 3,000 Thai Baht (approx. USD 100).

Verdicts in the two cases raise questions about the use of the Public Assembly Act B.E. 2558 (2015), in particular the definition of assembly organizers. Defendants who were found guilty by the Na Tawee Provincial Court for failure to notify the authorities were only participating in the march but did not organize it. When authorities obstructed the march, which led to push-back from the marchers, participants were instead charged for obstruction and assaults of the authorities.

  • Alleged organizers of “Run Against Dictatorship” in 14 areas face prosecution

Alleged organizers of the “Run Against Dictatorship” event dated 12 January 2020 throughout several provinces in Thailand are facing charges for failure to notify the authorities of their plans under the Public Assembly Act B.E. 2558 (2015). Up until February, Thai Lawyers for Human Rights documented at least 14 cases in relation to the run, totaling 18 individuals in Bangkok, Nonthaburi, Nakhon Sawan, Phitsanulok, Buriram, Nakhon Phanom, Surin, Yasothon, Kalsin, Lamphun, Chiang Rai, Phang Nga and Trang.

Out of 14 cases, the alleged individuals in six cases have pled guilty during the police investigation, suspects in another seven cases pled not guilty, and suspect in the other case has not reported to the police yet. To date, the public prosecutors have indicted suspects in three cases to the provincial courts in Nakhon Phanom, Nonthaburi and Phang Nga.

Police at Samut Prakan police station, close to Bangkok, have also summoned two participants, labor rights activists, of the event held in Samut Prakan province, to give testimony. There is no report of them being charged.

  • Police stop its investigation into the attacks on “Ja New”

                   (photo courtesy of Sirawith Seritiwat Facebook)

On 20 February 2020, pro-democracy activist and leader of We Want to Vote group Mr. Sirawith Seritiwat or “Ja New” received a letter in relation to the investigation into an assault on him on 28 June 2019. The letter, dated 14 February 2020 and signed by the inquiry officer at Min Buri police station, notified him of the completion of investigation. According to the letter, the inquiry officer concluded that there was insufficient evidence to identify a suspect and recommended the public prosecutor to not proceed with the investigation. The letter explained that the CCTV camera footage could not produce recognizable features of the suspect/s and could not identify their whereabouts. A few activists have been attacked several times in the past few years, but the police have not been able to identify a suspect to date.