THAILAND 2021The government redoubled its efforts to restrict the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Police used excessive force against protesters. Authorities judicially harassed and arbitrarily detained pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders. Proposed legislation on torture and enforced disappearance did not comply with Thailand’s international human rights obligations. Authorities increased the use of lèse-majesté laws and criminally accused at least 100 people, including children, of defaming the monarchy.
BackgroundStudent-led protests gathered in strength and number over the course of the year. Authorities imposed lockdown measures in parts of the country in response to surges in Covid-19 infections. The government was criticized for its slow vaccine roll-out, and the economy continued to suffer under Covid-19-related restrictions.
Freedom of assemblyDespite severe restrictions imposed by authorities on public gatherings, ostensibly to curb the spread of Covid-19, 1,545 protests took place over the course of the year in different parts of the country. Calls by protesters included amendments to the Constitution, dissolution of parliament, reform of the monarchy and the release of arbitrarily detained protest leaders. They also demanded improvements in the government’s handling of the pandemic. Authorities filed multiple charges against protest leaders and participants for violating restrictions on gatherings. Riot police used excessive force during the protests, indiscriminately firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters at short range towards protesters, bystanders and journalists. Many described being kicked, hit with batons and restrained for hours in tight plastic wrist cuffs, both on arrest and while in detention. Authorities often did not disclose where individuals were detained and delayed their access to lawyers.1 Live ammunition was used against protesters outside a police station in the capital, Bangkok, in August. Although police denied using live rounds, a 15-year-old-boy was shot in the neck and left paralyzed for three months before he died. Two other boys, aged 14 and 16, also suffered gunshot injuries.2 From August to September, at least 270 children, including a 12-year-old boy, were charged as a result of their participation in protests. Some of them were prosecuted under lèse-majesté or other provisions of the Criminal Code, and others under the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations related to the Covid-19 response.
Freedom of associationIn December, the government approved a draft Act on the Operations of Not-for-Profit Organizations. Civil society groups criticized the draft as containing prohibitions on operations of NGOs that are too broad and include most of their legitimate and protected activities. If the draft is passed, NGOs would also be subjected to overly broad reporting and disclosure requirements and authorities would be able to exert undue control over funds received by groups from foreign entities. Other provisions of concern included disproportionate fines and penalties for non-profit-organizations that would have a chilling effect on individuals wishing to organize their own groups.
Freedom of expressionAuthorities continued to use legislation including the Emergency Decree, sedition and defamation laws, the Computer Crimes Act and laws relating to contempt of court and insulting the court to unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression. During the year, criminal and civil proceedings were initiated against at least 1,460 individuals, including children and student activists, for expressing views perceived to be critical of government actions. Protest leaders Parit Chiwarak, Anon Nampa, Panusaya Sitijirawattanakul and Panupong Chadnok, along with many others, faced sentences up to life imprisonment if convicted. The authorities repeatedly arbitrarily detained and denied bail to other government critics. In July, Prime Minister Chan-O-Cha issued a regulation that provided for up to two years’ imprisonment for dissemination of “fake news” that “could spread fear and unrest, and harm national security”. However, in August, the Civil Court suspended a regulation allowing internet censorship and suspension of media organizations, finding that it excessively restricted rights. Authorities threatened Facebook and other platforms with legal action to force them to restrict content perceived to be insulting the monarchy. Authorities also blocked access to the website Change.org after it hosted a petition signed by more than 130,000 people calling for King Maha Vajiralongkorn to be declared persona non grata in Germany. After a two-year pause, authorities resumed using lèse-majesté laws. At least 116 people, including at least three children, were charged with lèse-majesté between January and November. Among them was “Anchan”, a former civil servant, who was sentenced to 87 years’ imprisonment for sharing audio files on social media. The sentence was halved after she pleaded guilty. In March, police arrested and charged two girls, aged 14 and 15, for burning pictures of the King. In July, five people, including an Amnesty International staff member, were fined after they took part in a panel discussion on the fate of Thai activists abducted in neighbouring countries since 2016. The panellists raised concerns about the lack of investigation into the enforced disappearance of pro-democracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Cambodia in June 2020, as well the failure of the Thai authorities to establish the fate or whereabouts of eight other exiled activists who remained missing.
Torture and other ill-treatmentIn August, Jiraphong Thanapat died after being tortured at Muang Nakhon Sawan police station. Video evidence showed police officers suffocating him by placing a plastic bag over his head until he collapsed.
Enforced disappearancesIn September, parliament agreed an initial draft of a law that would criminalize both torture and enforced disappearances for the first time. However, the draft failed to include important elements, in line with international standards, such as: the inclusion of “persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State” among perpetrators of an enforced disappearance; the inclusion of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by law enforcement personnel as punishable offences; and provisions on the continuous nature of the crime.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rightsAfter the February military coup in Myanmar, three journalists who fled to Thailand were arrested by authorities for entering the country illegally. Border officials pushed back into Myanmar approximately 2,000 Karen villagers who fled to Thailand to escape military air strikes. In November, authorities forcibly returned refugees to Cambodia.
Right to healthThailand was hit by a third wave of Covid-19 infections in April, with the government’s slow vaccine roll-out cited as a significant contributory factor to this and other surges in infections during the year. Government records showed more than 20,000 people died from the virus. Approximately 87,000 cases were reported in prisons, exacerbated by poor hygiene and overcrowded conditions. At least 185 prisoners died as a result.
Indigenous peoples’ rightsIn February, ethnic Karen people protested in front of the Government House in Bangkok demanding to be allowed to return to their ancestral lands in Jai Pan Din village in Kaeng Krachan National Park, where they had lived for decades prior to being forcibly evicted in 2011. In March, 22 Karen villagers were arrested and detained in Kaeng Krachan National Park for trespassing. Lawyers were not allowed to be present during their interrogations.
Sexual and reproductive rightsIn February, parliament amended the Criminal Code, making abortion legal up to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The term of imprisonment for women convicted of terminating their pregnancy after the first trimester was also reduced from three years to six months, but abortion after 12 weeks remained a criminal offence.
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