Thailand: Drop Charges, Release Democracy Activists

(New York) – Thai authorities should immediately and unconditionally release prominent human rights lawyer Arnon Nampha and democracy activist Panupong Jadnok, Human Rights Watch said today. They should drop all charges related to their participation in peaceful rallies to demand restoration of democracy. Police are reported to be targeting at least 31 other people, including many student movement leaders, for arrest in the coming days.

“By arresting peaceful activists calling for democracy and political reform, Thailand is continuing the kind of oppressive rule established under the previous military dictatorship,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments around the world should call out Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha for making a mockery of his pledges to respect human rights, and demand the release of these political prisoners.”

On August 7, 2020, police arrested Arnon and Panupong in Bangkok on charges related to their involvement in the “Free Youth” rally in Bangkok on July 18. They are charged with sedition, which carries a maximum seven-year prison term, assembly with intention to cause violence, violating the ban on public gathering, and other criminal offenses. On August 8, police received approval from the Bangkok Criminal Court to put them in pre-trial detention at the Bangkok Remand Prison.

The arrest of Arnon and Panupong happened despite the prime minister’s public promise on August 4 that the government would provide a space for the dissenters to voice their concerns and opinions, following the escalating youth-led, anti-government protests in recent weeks. “I am concerned about our youth, and I want them to know that we will listen to their ideas about what they want their future to look like,” Prayut said.

The Free Youth movement organized a peaceful rally in front of the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on July 18. Arnon and Panupong spoke at the event, which was the largest political protest in Thailand since the 2014 military coup, with more than 1,000 participants calling for the dissolution of parliament, a new constitution, and an end to authorities harassing people who exercise their freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous witnesses to the demonstration and watched videos of the protest, all of which stated or showed that the protest was peaceful. The rallies have since spread to 45 provinces across the country and broadened their demands to include reforms of the institution of the monarchy to curb King Maha Vajiralongkorn’s powers.

International human rights law, as reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that Thailand ratified in 1996, protects the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. But Thai authorities have routinely enforced censorship and gagged public discussions of rights, political reforms, and the monarchy. Over the past decade, hundreds of activists and dissidents have been prosecuted on serious criminal charges such as sedition, computer-related crimes, and lese majeste (insulting the monarchy) for peacefully expressing their views.

Repression continued after the March 2019 general elections, which brought the coup leader General Prayut back to office as prime minister for a second term. Thailand’s anti-democratic trend has intensified over the past five months, as Thai authorities have used state of emergency measures implemented to control the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to ban anti-government rallies and harass pro-democracy activists.   

International pressure is urgently needed to press for a genuine transition to civilian democratic rule in Thailand.

“With each new politically motivated arrest, Thailand moves further away from the democratic path,” Adams said. “Peaceful protests for political reform should not be criminalized. Diplomats and the United Nations need to publicly demand the Thai government allow its people to organize and express their visions for the country’s future.”