Prayut’s campaign of repression thunders on

39 activists face charges under Thailand’s sedition and public assembly laws. Prayut tightens his grip over Thailand.

By Oliver Ward

Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha’s further election delays angered pro-democracy activists. On the 27th of January, 39 activists from the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) rallied in Bangkok.

The activists will face charges

Prayut’s government have brought criminal charges against everyone in attendance. The activists face charges under Thailand’s sedition and public assembly laws. The 39 protesters face up to seven years in prison.

Prayut has repeatedly promised to restore Thai democracy. Prosecuting demonstrators for executing their democratic right to protest sends a contradictory message. Public protests are a necessary part of a democratic state. They are a basic right.

Rather than transition to democracy, Prayut’s Thailand is becoming more repressive

Since taking power in 2014, Prayut’s government has become more repressive. It banned public gatherings and has increased lese-majeste arrests.

Source: The Nation

The authorities are using intimidation tactics in the case against the 39 activists. The court set their bail at a combined cost of over 2 million baht (US$63,000). The figure is astronomical and far beyond the economic reach of the protestors. The nine protest leaders have bail set at 200,000 baht (US$6,300).

Sa-nguan Khumrungroj spoke about how the police delivered his court summons. “The police visited my 90-year-old parents at midnight to sign documents,” he said. He added, “my mother can barely speak.”

These descriptions do not sound like a country transitioning to democracy. The use of intimidation and fear indicates a descent into an authoritarian police-state.

External pressure is needed

The only relief from Prayut’s campaign of repression came in 2017. Somchai Homlaor, Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, and Anchana Heemmina faced criminal defamation charges for accusing the Thai military of torturing suspects. The case was dropped in October due to increasing international and domestic pressure.

The case is an example of how international pressure can combat governmental repression. Rather than line up to condemn the regime, many governments have improved ties.

There have been two significant missed opportunities to apply international pressure to Prayut. In October, he visited the White House. Human rights groups pleaded with the US government to raise the issue of human rights. But President Donald Trump did not discuss the issue with Prayut.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Thailand in August. Human Rights Watch publicly urged her to challenge Prayut’s human rights record. She also declined to do so. She had previously criticised the 2014 military coup that brought Prayut to power.

The US walked away from the meeting having increased bilateral trade with Thailand. Bishop also strengthened economic ties with Thailand. She discussed updating the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

As Prayut tightens his grip, it falls on external forces to champion human rights in Thailand.  Australia and the US are members of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR). They have the responsibility to pressure human rights abusers whenever they can. Yet neither welcomed the opportunity. It raises serious questions about the effectiveness of the UNHCR.