2020: The Year of Protests, Ceiling Breaking, and Political Lawsuits

You don’t have to follow the politics so closely to know that 2020 was a significant year for Thai political history. A number of events considered “impressive” have taken place throughout the year, particularly in the second half of it.

The ongoing protests by students and citizens, courageous expression of youth in school and online, a fresh and creative take on political demands, as well as the breaking of the political ceiling existing in Thai society for the longest time, have made this year politically special in many ways. And in the years to come, Thai society can and will never be the “the same” again.

In parallel, the violation of people’s rights and liberties, especially on the freedom of expression and assembly, continue to be at the forefront, as the authorities were continuously trying to enforce various measures, particularly lawsuits, to curb these exciting activities throughout the year.

At the start of the new year, TLHR invites you to review the key political and human rights situations in the past year together. In summary, we will call the passing year “the year of protests, ceiling breaking, and political lawsuits.”

The Nationwide Run Against Dictatorship” and Its Legal Consequences

2020 began with the “Run Against Dictatorship” activity, which was held in different regions around the country on Sunday, 12 January 2020. It was as much a health-promoting running activity as one that sent out a political message, which quickly turned into a platform for different groups of people to organize their own, independent of the original organizers in Bangkok.

According to TLHR, the “Run Against Dictatorship” was organized in at least 39 provinces in 49 different locations in all regions of Thailand. Some provinces saw multiple locations or hours with key participants ranging from ten to tens of thousand of people, like in Bangkok.

While most activities were allowed to take place, many of them faced obstacles, including threats from the government officials, the use of the law on public assembly, and other forms of interference. Even in the provinces with no activity, the police tracked down the citizens to check the information and prevent them from organizing one.

After the activities, the authorities also filed a complaint against the organizers and those believed to be the organizers in 16 cases. Even though the Public Assembly Act contains a provision explicitly exempting sports events, 14 cases cited the failure to notify the authorities, as a result of a problematic interpretation of the activity.

Until today, seven Run Against Dictatorship cases in Bangkok, Nakhon Phanom, Buriram, Kalasin, Phang-Nga, Nakhon Sawan, and Chiang Rai are still pending. The accused in all of these cases decided to defend themselves, and most cases are awaiting the Court’s deliberation. Some cases have also been forwarded to the Constitutional Court to determine whether the content of the Public Assembly Act contradicts the constitution or not.

The Dissolution of the Future Forward Party by the Constitutional Court and the Start of On-campus Flash Mobs

21 Feb 2020, the Constitutional Court ordered the dissolution of the Future Forward Party, which became the first trigger of the previous year leading to a chain of “flash mob” protests opposing the court ruling between late February and mid-March.

The said activities were spearheaded by young people and students from different academic institutions. The campuses all over the country became a venue for political protests. The speeches and banners reflected topics beyond the dissolution of the progressive party. For a large number of protestors, this was also the first-ever political participation in their life.

According to TLHR, at least 95 pro-democracy/anti-dictatorship #flashmob protests took place between 21 Feb and 14 Mar 2020. Among this number, 79 took place on university campuses, 6 on the school grounds, and 10 outside of an academic institution.

Another important phenomenon is that the protests were no longer limited to big universities or universities with political history only, but also extended to the Rajabhat, Rajamangala, and private universities, as well as some schools. It was the preview of what was to come in the second half of the year.

Academic institutions are usually exempt from the Public Assembly Act, where the organizers are not obliged to notify the authorities and the police may not use such law to monitor the activities. Nevertheless, several protests happening during this period faced restriction and interference, including the prohibition and pressure from the academic institution/executives and harassment and threats by the state authorities. As a result, some organizers decided to call off the activity.

In this period, the charges under the Public Assembly Act and the law on sound amplifier were found to be used to accuse the protestors in at least 3 cases. The accused decided to pay fines to terminate the case at the police’s stage.

The Spread of the Covid-19 Pandemic and the Emergency Decree

Coinciding with the rise of the student-led flash mobs in mid-March was the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Thailand. It became more serious after a hot spot at Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, which was managed by the army, had been identified.

Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, empowered by the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation B.E. 2548 (2005), declared the nationwide state of emergency from 26 Mar 2020, which has been extended every month. Until today, the Emergency Decree in Thailand has been in effect for more than 9 months already.

The Emergency Decree has resulted in the restriction of people’s rights and liberties in numerous ways and given authorities broader power to speed up measures during the emergency situation, while limited the check and balance mechanism by the judiciary. Thus, the announcement of this special law should be limited to a fixed time period, the measures should be proportionate to the situation, and the circumstance should be re-evaluated regularly.

The state’s measures of suppression and control following the announcement of the Emergency Decree without taking into account the impacts on the citizens have caused job and income loss for a large number of households. Of particular vulnerability were groups like the homeless, laborers, urban poor, etc. Moreover, the government agencies took advantage of the situation to advance various projects further affecting people and communities.

At the same time, we have also seen the use of the Computer-related Crime Act to accuse people who shared information about or questioned the government’s management. A notable case concerns Danai Ussama, who shared a post questioning the airport’s COVID-19 screening measures upon return from an overseas art exhibition.

The enforcement of the Emergency Decree in the second half of 2020, during which the domestic pandemic situation had eased up, against a large number of protestors has prompted a question about the intention of the law and a criticism of it being a political tool. On the contrary, the government has repeatedly insisted that the extension of the law had nothing to do with politics.

According to TLHR, at least 117 people in 49 cases were charged with the violation of the Emergency Decree, which was originally aimed to control the Covid-19 outbreak, for their political participation (excluding the cases during the announcement of the state of serious emergency in Bangkok).

At the same time, it has not been reported that the political activities during this time had contributed to a heightened spread of Covid-19 and that people or government officials, who showed an opposite stance to the Kana Ratsadon group, had been prosecuted in the same way.

Twittersphere, Arrest of “Niranam”, and Extrajudicial Harassment by Government Officials.

The internet was burning this year, especially on Twitter, which has become an important platform for political expression. Hashtags were used to promote online political campaign posts, including those with straightforward monarchy content, which repeatedly made it to top trends. Also quite popular was the trend, in which users competed with each other to come up with a creative hashtag for their own event.

In February, a Twitter user named “Niranam_”, a 20-years old man, was arrested by the police with charges under the Computer-related Crime Act for sharing a picture and a text about the King Rama X. The Twitter account was created in October 2018, and contained political news, especially historical, monarchy-related facts. With over 140 thousand followers, the account was well-known among younger generation.

Today, the “Niranam_” case is still under the public prosecutor. Around mid-2020, he was additionally charged for other tweets, making his case containing a total of 8 acts. His case needs to be further observed.

Besides lawsuits, there were frequent reports of authorities’ house visits of people who shared online opinions about the monarchy. The majority was found to have shared posts from the Facebook account of Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Andrew MacGregor Marshall, and Konthai UK Facebook page.

In some cases, the police brought the people to be interrogated at the police station without an arrest or summon warrant, as well as asked to check the communication devices. In addition, they also inquired about personal data, ordered the removal of the problematic content, and forced them to sign an agreement promising not to express opinions on the topic again. Such actions were beyond the legal mandate, yet a common reoccurrence since 2019.

According to TLHR data, at least 41 internet users who posted monarchy-related opinions or even just shared monarchy-related news on the internet have received the treatment from the authorities in 2020. Many more could only be speculated.

The Emergence of the “Royalist Marketplace” and the Political Expression of Tiwakorn

The emergence of a Facebook group called the “Royalist Marketplace” or “Talad Luang” created by an exiled scholar, Pavin Chachavalpongpun has greatly broadened the online discussions on the monarchy.

The Facebook group was created on 16 Apr 2020 and, since then, has become a popular platform for monarchy-related comments in a variety of aspects. The page succeeded in gaining over one million members, which prompted the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society to have it restricted domestically by the Court in August. However, a replacement group was immediately surfaced and continued until today with over 2.2 million Facebook accounts listed as members.

Apart from the state attempts to censor and monitor active citizens, “witch-hunting” was another noted reactionary phenomenon. According to TLHR, at least 25 people were witch-hunted by the conservative Facebook pages, many of whom were people who had posted and shared opinions in the Royalist Marketplace group.

The said pages proceeded by taking and sharing a screenshot of the victim’s Facebook profile picture and comments on their own page. Then, they mobilized members to attack the chosen victim and put pressure on their school or workplace, in order to create difficulties in their daily life. Moreover, they also brought comments and personal data to file a complaint at a local police station.

Another important incident in the past year featured “Tiwakorn Withiton”, a Khon Kaen native who shared a picture of himself wearing a t-shirt, which said “I have lost faith in the monarchy” with an explanation underneath on his own Facebook account as well as in the Royalist Marketplace group.

As a result, he was visited by officials from several agencies at home and was persuaded to not wear the t-shirt again. In July, the police detained him and had him checked for mental illnesses at the Khon Kaen Psychiatry Hospital. The police also seized his mobile phone, computer, and t-shirt, and stationed units at the hospital, as well as prohibiting any visits, unless previously approved by his relatives.

The incident triggered a widespread #saveTiwakorn campaign. Seeing that the unlawful arrest of Tiwakorn, “Pai Daodin” also submitted a complaint to the Court. Though his complaint was rejected, Tiwakorn was released a few hours later, after spending 14 days in detention at the hospital.

The Enforced Disappearance of “Wanchalerm Satsaksit”

The evening of 4 Jun 2020 marks another historical date for the human rights situation this year, as Wanchalerm ‘Tar’ Satsaksit, a Thai exile in Cambodia, was abducted in front of his apartment in Phnom Penh. More than half a year has passed, news of Wanchalerm is yet to be heard.

Wanchalerm’s enforced disappearance is a recurring form of violence in Thailand. The year before, at least 9 Thai exiles had disappeared in a neighboring country, two of whom were found dead in the Mekong river with evidence of brutal assaults. Likewise, the truth of all of these cases has not been revealed.

Wanchalerm’s case has given rise to the #SaveWanchalerm phenomenon and an array of symbolic expression on the internet to demand justice for not only him, but also other individuals made disappeared in the course of Thai political history. The many subsequent protests also reiterated the issue of enforced disappearance in Thailand.

Wanchalerm’s case had received particular attention from the international community, including the United Nations, international organizations, and presses covering ASEAN. Statements were issued and letters were submitted pressing the Thai and Cambodian government to respond, and the incident was constantly taken up by the media.

Recently, Wanchalerm’s family member traveled to Cambodia to give accounts to the investigating judge on 8 Dec 2020, and to validate the incident. We still need to follow how the national justice process in Cambodia handles the case, and how the search for Wanchalerm progresses.

Wanchalerm’s case is a reminder for us all that there are still currently other Thai exiles who cannot come home. According to TLHR, there are at least 104 people who became exiles during the NCPO era with no hope for return.

#FreeYouth – When Students Voice Out their Political Concern

18 July 2020 is regarded as the beginning of a new wave of political movement, the one that lasts until today. The so-called “#FreeYouth” group organized their first major rally at the Democracy Monument introducing the three demands: the dissolution of the parliament, a new constitution, and an end to the state harassment on citizens. The demands also later incorporated the monarchy reform.

Since then, many following protests, which took place everyday expanding to other provinces, echoed the three demands. A large proportion of participants was also young generation, and in some cases, the organizers were just high school students. We have also seen much creativity and diversity in the activities that were planned.

According to TLHR, at least 246 public rallies in at least 62 provinces were organized in the course of 85 days from 18 July to 10 Oct 2020. 74 of them occurred within an academic institution (43 on university campuses and 31 in schools). On average, almost 3 rallies (2.9) took place daily.

During this phenomenon, “youth” and students in various schools have also loudly raised issues directly related to them, such as the mandatory hairstyle, school uniform, school rules, sexual harassment in school, or the problematic educational system, etc. As a result, the activities were not only limited to rallies, but also symbolic ones, for instance, tying white bows, flashing the three-finger salute during the national anthem, raising a blank sheet of paper, and giving opinions in school activities or other types of student activities.

At the wake of this awakening, the government officials have continuously tried to clampdown these events through both legal and non-legal tools. TLHR found that at least 145 citizens, among which were 29 school students and 25 university students, were visited by authorities at their home or school, or received a telephone call after the Free Youth protest until 10 Oct 2020.

Meanwhile, the students’ activities in academic institutions have also faced various forms of censorship and harassment, including banning of the symbolic expression, prohibiting the use of venue, physical harassment by teachers, threats of disciplinary measures or even dismissal, summoning parents, or police monitoring at school or at home. In short, academic institutions are not truly regarded as a “safe space” for students.

In the following year, we still need to follow the strong wave of youth and student-led movement, as well as the measures of the state and schools in response to it.

The Demand for a Monarchy Reform and the Return of Section 112

An important development of this year’s politics was the “ceiling-breaking” phenomenon of the Thai political movement thus far: a straightforward criticism of the status and power of the Thai monarchy in public.

This wave started on 3 Aug 2020, as Anon Nampa speech at the Harry Potter-themed rally touched on the problems of the monarchy. On 10 Aug 2020, a set of 10 demands was put forward by the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration at the #TUWillNotStand protest at Thammasat University, Rangsit Campus. The content and the proposals on the royal reform have been reverberating in Thai society ever since.

At the same time, the state was reacting to this progressive shift with its legal arm. Initially, it used section 116 of the Penal Code, or the sedition charge, to prosecute people, as well as the Court order to arrest protest leaders. According to TLHR, the Court issued at least 56 arrest warrants in 2020 citing this particular charge.

In addition, the police attempted to have the bail of protest leaders, including Anon and Mike Panupong, revoked, which led to a 5-day detention in early September. Nonetheless, political activities did not cease during that time.

October saw an intense period of protests. During the 14 October protest staged by the so-called “Kana Ratsadon”, it was alleged that a group of protestors attempted to “obstruct the Queen’s royal motorcade”, which led to 3 students and activists to be prosecuted with a serious offence that was “violence against the Queen or her liberty” in section 110 of the Penal Code. That was the first time in many decades in which this law was invoked.

The incident also served as one of the excuses for Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha to declare the state of serious emergency in Bangkok from 15 Oct to 22 Oct 2020. During this period, no fewer than 90 protesters and leaders were arrested, 17 arrest warrants were issued by the Court, many leaders were detained for almost three weeks, and a crack down operation was carried out against the rallies in front of the House of Government and at the Pathumwan Intersection. Nevertheless, as the number of protests and protestors had not decreased, the government finally repealed the announcement, under the slogan “One Step Back on Each Side”.

Seeing that the rallies calling for the monarchy reform persisted, the government enforced another measure involving the renewal of the application of section 112 since November and onwards, after a 2-year break.

In the following period, the lèse-majesté returned in full force. At the end of 2020, at least 37 people in 23 cases have been accused with section 112 due to their political involvement. The pro-reform movement and the state’s renewal application of section 112 will continue to be the key issues for the public to closely monitor this year.

The Political Lawsuits and the Use of Law as a Tool

In response to hundreds of protests throughout the year, government officials and people in power relied on laws to prosecute just as many politically active citizens.

The “laws” and “justice system” as a political tool can be said to be the legacy from the NCPO era, during which the two things were used to censor and suppress political dissidents, focusing on maximizing legal burdens for the accused and political advantages for themselves. Compared to the previous coups, the approach was most widely practiced during the NCPO government.

According to TLHR, at least 234 people in 145 cases were charged as a result of their political participation between 18 Jul and 25 Dec 2020, outnumbering the total number in the past 2-3 years combined. Various criminal charges were used to prosecute peaceful protesters, ranging from petty offences to serious ones, like section 110 and 112. Some of the statistics compiled by TLHR are as follows:

  • Section 112: at least 37 people in 23 cases.
  • Section 116: at least 60 people in 20 cases.
  • Emergency Decree: at least 175 people in 64 cases (23 cases during the announcement of the state of serious emergency in Bangkok)
  • Public Assembly Act: at least 60 people in 46 cases.

A large number of activists and leaders faced lawsuits creating legal burdens that required them to report themselves at intervals. For instance, after the Free Youth rallies, Parit ‘Penguin’ was charged in 26 cases, Anon Nampa 20 cases, Mike Panupong 16 cases, Rung Panusaya 10 cases, etc.

Additionally, six juveniles were already accused and prosecuted with sections 112 and 116, an emerging trend following the wave of youth outburst.

Such a politicized use of laws and justice process has tremendous impacts on the legal system, the credibility of judicial organizations, and the rule of law principle in Thai society, which may take several years to recover.

 

Read related stories:

The Number of Prosecutions under “Lèse Majesté” in 2020

A Month after October 14: three times increases of public assembly cases, 175 people prosecuted and charged with Section 116-the Emergency Decree

Before 14 October: Overview of harassment of individuals by authorities following Free Youth’s protest (Statistics of 18 July to 10 October 2020)