Restrictions on freedom of expression should be lifted in Thailand to allow credible national elections to be held early next year, says a leading rights group.
On Dec. 11, the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) lifted its prohibition on public gatherings and political activities, allowing political parties to conduct election campaigns for parliament, said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement.
However, the junta kept in place military orders restricting expression and authorizing detention and prosecution for speech critical of the junta, its policies and actions, and the monarchy, said HRW.
All criminal cases in military and civilian courts related to opposition to military rule will proceed. The national elections are scheduled to be held on Feb. 24, 2019.
“Thailand can’t hold credible elections when political parties, the media, and voters are gagged by threats of arrest and criminal prosecution,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “With polling day just two months away, the Thai junta should immediately lift all legal orders that restrict the right to freedom of expression.”
Since the May 2014 military coup, Thailand’s junta has broadly and arbitrarily interpreted peaceful criticism and dissenting opinions to constitute disinformation, seditious acts, and threats to national security.
For more than four years, the junta has routinely enforced media censorship and blocked public discussions about human rights and democracy.
On Dec. 1, Thai authorities blocked access to the Human Rights Watch Thailand webpage, alleging that the contents were inappropriate and constituted a “national security threat.”
For more than four years under military rule, Thai authorities have prosecuted hundreds of activists and dissidents on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for peaceful expression of their views.
Since the beginning of 2018, more than 100 pro-democracy activists have been prosecuted for peacefully demanding the junta to hold the promised elections without further delay and to lift all restrictions on fundamental freedoms.
In August, the leader of the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was charged with violating the Computer-Related Crime Act, which could result in a five-year prison term, for online commentary criticizing the junta.
Watana Muangsook, former Social Development and Human Security Minister, and other key members of the Pheu Thai Party have also been repeatedly charged with sedition and computer-related crimes for making comments, including on social media, opposing military rule.
Local human rights and political activists expressed concern to HRW that independent monitoring of elections will not be possible under current conditions. Thai authorities frequently retaliate with criminal charges, including for criminal defamation and Computer-Related Crime Act violations, against anyone who reports allegations of state-sponsored abuses and official misconduct.
The junta forcibly blocked efforts to monitor the constitutional referendum in 2016 and prosecuted many people involved in such activities.
Thailand’s upcoming elections will be held while Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha still maintains unchecked and unaccountable powers, including for human rights violations, that will remain in place until a new government is formed.
The junta-appointed Senate and other elements of the 2017 constitution will ensure prolonged military control even after elections are held.