Thailand: Public assembly law creates new hurdles for political protests

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 4, 2015 In the past decade, Thailand has seen fair share of political protests. As color-coded groups staged prolonged, large-scale street rallies, politics frequently more often took place outside than inside its usual institutions. Many of these protests went on for several weeks with varying degrees of impact on public life as major public areas (Rajaprasong Intersection in 2010 and 2014, Democracy Monument), numerous government buildings (even Government House itself in 2008) and even Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (also in 2008) have been occupied. And many protests have also sparked violent incidents (sometimes deliberately provoked), some resulting in deaths as protesters have clashed with security officials - or in the case of the red shirt protests of 2010 - the military.

The last major demonstrations we've seen were the anti-government protests of 2013-14, which lasted almost half a year and brought parts of the capital Bangkok to a grinding halt - not to mention halting political discourse, deliberately creating a deadlock in which the military could easily launch the coup of May 22, 2014.

Following that hostile takeover and the declaration of martial law, the military junta outlawed public gatherings of more than five people. But even after its recent revocation has effectively banned any protests, as the infamous Article 44 still gives the junta near-absolute power.

Then, the military government’s all-appointed ersatz-parliament, the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), passed a law on Friday that seeks to regulate future public protests:

People seeking to stage a public protest must inform authorities 24 hours in advance, and others who think they create public nuisance may petition the Administrative Court or courts of justice under the new public assembly law passed on Friday.

The law also prohibits public gatherings in the 150-metre radius of the royal places of Their Majesties, those of the royal family members, and residences of regents/royal guests. A public rally cannot be held on the premises of Parliament, Government House and courts unless authorities arrange a spot for it. (...) Other places deemed off-limits include embassies, consuls and international agencies.

The law requires a rally organisers to notify police officers supervising the area they would like to use as the rally venue at least 24 hours before the assembly. They must also tell authorities the purpose of the gathering and how long it will last.

New public assembly law passed”, Bangkok Post, May 1, 2015

The bill was in the works since August last year after a proposal by the Royal Thai Police was approved by the cabinet in late November. The draft bill passed its first reading in the NLA with an overwhelmingly unanimous 182-0 vote in late February. The core components, such as the 24-hours notification and no-go areas at key government buildings, were left untouched until the final vote by the NLA. Other restrictions include a ban on loudspeakers between midnight and 6am, a requirement of protesters to stay at the site between 6pm and 6am and (obviously understandable) a ban on weapons at the rallies (a more detailed list can be found here).

Any violation of these restrictions is enough for the police officer charged with overseeing the protest (in most cases the commander of the police station which has been asked for permission) to declare the protest "illegal" and seek an order to disperse at the civil or provincial courts.

Protesters that refuse to leave despite being ordered by the police could face up to a year in jail and/or a maximum fine of 20,000 Baht (about $600). Other punishments include up to 6 months prison and/or 10,000 baht (about $300) for protesting without police permission, also up to six months for the rally organizers for any stage-related violation (loudspeakers after midnight, "inciting" speeches) and up to 10 years imprisonment for carrying weapons, trespassing and damage, making threats and causing harm to others and any disruption of public service and utilities (e.g. water and electricity).

That's a lot of obstacles for future protests. Furthermore, declaring most key government buildings such as Government House and Parliament off limits is understandable given that these sites have been besieged and occupied before, but it also prevents some protesters - the smaller, non-obstructive kind - from certain symbolic acts, such as handing petitions to politicians. That is if they even get this far.

The first hurdle that organizers have now to face is asking the police for permission, which could look like this in practice:

If the police station chief says no, we have the right to appeal to his boss. And if the boss says no too, his judgement will be deemed final. But we can still appeal to the court against the ban.

By then, I expect many affected groups which want to have their voices heard through protest will become frustrated and may scrap their planned expression of discontent. Another scenario is that a planned protest will lose steam because instead of protesting, the people involved will be forced to waste their time in courtroom battles.

Also, which police station chief - who will likely be of police colonel rank - will say yes to a protest in his area of jurisdiction at the risk of being reprimanded by his boss? So, there is a likelihood that rejection will be the norm.

"Harsh laws on public gatherings a blow to democracy", Bangkok Post, May 4, 2015

As usual with laws and regulations in Thailand, it's not the exact wording that is the problem but the motivation that it was written with. A certain fatigue of political protests regularly descending into chaos is understandable, however one should take the circumstances of the bill's creation into consideration. There has been absolutely no input by the public and the draft was waved through with few to no changes.

One must also not forget the military junta's general disdain to any display of public dissent, including rallies concerning environmental issues. The new law could give future governments - and possible extra-parliamentary forces - a handy tool to curtail political protests.

Thais in Milan rally for and against junta leader's visit

Originally published at Siam Voices on October 17, 2014 Exiled Thai activist Junya "Lek" Yimprasert (center) holding a sign denouncing Thai junta leader and prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at a rally in Milan, Italy, which hosts the Asia-Europe Meeting. (Photo by Eugenio Morongiu)

The attendance of Thailand's junta Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha at the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan has promted Thais to take action to either protest against his arrival or to display support for him as the political polarization among Thais extends abroad, writes Saksith Saiyasombut.

"Dittatore NON sei benvenuto!" - The message in Italian makes it clear in no uncertain terms that somebody isn't welcome and judging by the face on the image it is also very clear who it is directed at: A drawing of the trademark stern look of General Prayuth Chan-ocha. A few of these stickers (in different languages) have been put in the northern Italian city of Milan.

One such sticker was put on a lamppost, when Mrs. Wiyada discovered it. She immediately put up her own sign on the post (and took it down again after snapping the picture): a portrait of a proud-looking General Prayuth in front of an Italian flag above silhouettes of a crowd waving Thai flags with the slogan "Welcome Thai PM to Italy."

It comes to no surprise that the recently retired army chief is causing such an uproar: in May 2014, he launched a military coup - the second within 8 years and the 12th in total since 1932 - and his military junta has appointed a quasi-parliament dominated by military officers, who in return have appointed General Prayuth as prime minister. Furthermore, his military government intends to "reform" to political system in a self-proclaimed crusade against "corruption" that may eventually results in fresh elections some time in late 2015 - or not. Also, not to mention the countless summons, detentions and trials against dissidents critical of the coup and severe media censorship, especially online.

Contrary to general impressions and most appearances in recent months, the Thai junta seems not to be completely tone-deaf of the opposition it has suppressed in recent months, as the Foreign Ministry anticipated that there'll be protests against General Prayuth's visit to ASEM in Milan in order to explain the political situation to leaders of the European Union heads of states from Europe and Asia from their point of view.

(READ MORE: Thai junta leader in Europe ‘to collect stamps of approval’)

Junya "Lek" Yimprasert is one of the people protesting against Prayuth in Milan. A veteran labor and political activist, she is forced to live in exile after being charged last year with lèse majesté for writing a 2010 essay critical of Thailand's monarchy, for which she could face a jail sentence of up to 15 years. Now she lives in Finland and has traveled to Milan a week before the ASEM to attend the associated Asia-Europe People's Forum to explain her opposition against Prayuth at a panel discussion on Thailand under military rule. (Disclaimer: This author was one of the other panelists at this forum, following an invitation of the Asienhaus Foundation)

"The ASEM must not allow a military dictator to come to Europe and collect stamps of approval," said Junya in a rapid-fire manner during the three hours panel talk. Her demand would be later echoed in the final declaration (PDF) of the bi-annual and bi-continental meeting of NGOs and social movements, adding that "democratic governments to grant asylum to all citizens who have been put under pressure and have been prosecuted in Thailand."

The other part of her plan to protest against Prayuth is to mobilize local activists, as she and her group of other concerned Thai citizens have met with Milan-based groups to jointly organize a rally on Thursday, when the leaders from Europe and Asia arrive at ASEM. "It is an act of international solidarity," Junya would say later.

Meanwhile, the other side was also preparing to convene in Milan. Mrs. Wiyada (full name withheld), a 38-year old resident of Cervia (roughly 3 hours away from Milan) who has called Italy her home for 9 years now, is charge of PR for several groups "all across Europe in 18 countries" that are aligned with the group that have held prolonged anti-government protests from autumn last year and whose actions have paved the way for the military coup in May 2014.

Talking to Asian Correspondent, Mrs. Wiyada says that initially she only planed to greet General Prayuth with a small group of Thais. "But when we heard that the other side (referring to Junya Yimprasert) were coming, we decided to meet up," she said, claiming that  Thais from "all over Italy and some from Switzerland" will join to show their support to the Thai junta leader - all on their own initiative and nobody the background paying them.

While she admits that the current military government "isn't a democracy," she claims that the toppled government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra "wasn't democratic either," reiterating the claims that her and previous affiliated administrations may have won at the polls, but weren't acting in the interest of the country.

It is not known where exactly the political allegiances are among the roughly 5000 Thais living in Italy, but like in the rest of the continent, political groups from both sides of the spectrum exist and regular meet to discuss the state of Kingdom. However, Mrs. Wiyada claims that "the other side doesn't have the support from most Thais here in Italy. That's the difference!"

On Thursday, Wiyada's group - roughly two dozen - are waving Thai flags and holding signs at the hotel where General Prayuth stays in the morning and later in the afternoon (see HERE), and then waiting for him at the famous Duomo cathedral in the evening, cheering to him whenever the group saw him.

In a different part of town, at least 200 to 300 protesters are rallying through the streets of Milan - the overwhelming majority being Italian students. Nevertheless, Junya and other Thais are to be seen front row holding anti-Prayuth signs, joined by other students as well. Junya was also holding the picture of Fabio Polgenhi, the Italian photojournalist killed in the deadly crackdown by the Thai military on anti-government red shirt protesters in 2010. The investigation of his death have dragged on and may never be fully concluded.

While some local Italian media outlets would later refer these protest merely as a student rally against the Italian far-right party Lega Nord and racism in general, other media outlets specifically point out the opposition to the Thai junta as well. Regardless that may appear for some that the anti-Prayuth angle was an afterthought, the pictures of Mrs. Junya leading a large rally protesting the leader of Thailand's military junta have effectively framed her cause.

Talking after the rally to Asian Correspondent, Junya Yimprasert thinks it was "a success" and emphasized the cooperation with Italian activists. When asked about whether the participation of mostly Italian students in a protest about a Thai issue would diminish her campaign, she counters that "Italians also have a right to discuss issues in Thailand. The case with Thailand is an international problem (...) and it is time for the world to tell Thailand that enough is enough!"

While Thais were protesting for and against him, General Prayuth himself was shaking hands with leaders from Japan, China, Singapore and many other heads of states from Europe and Asia. According to the junta, these pictures of the encounters will be spun as a sign of acceptance by the international community of Prayuth and the military government - regardless of what was actually said.

Thus it is astonishing but unsurprising that a junta spokesman in Thailand claims that there have been no protests against Prayuth in Milan - Thursday's events evidently rebuke that assessment, showing that the junta cannot control the complete narrative. Both the rallies for and against Thailand's junta prime minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha prove that not only does the political polarization exists among Thais abroad, but also that he not necessarily welcome everywhere.

Thai court dismisses murder charges against Abhisit and Suthep

Originally published at Siam Voices on August 29, 2014 Thailand's Criminal Court has dismissed murder charges against former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his then-Deputy pPM Suthep Thuagsuban for their roles in the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in 2010. Over 90 people were killed and thousands injured (both protesters and security officers) when the military dispersed the red shirt protesters after weeks of rallies in central Bangkok. The protesters were calling for the resignation of Abhisit's government and a new election.

The Criminal Court's decision on Thursday seems to stem from a technicality:

The court said it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case because the two men held public office at the time of the protest.

"The court has no jurisdiction to consider the case because the two were a prime minister and deputy prime minister," a judge said on Thursday. "The charges relate to political office holders. The criminal court therefore dismisses the charges."

"Thai court dismisses murder charges against former PM, deputy", Reuters, August 28, 2014

The charge against Abhisit and Suthep was filed in late 2012 by police, prosecutors and the Department of Special Investigations (DSI) on the latter's recommendation and followed a growing number of court rulings saying that protesters were killed by bullets fired by soldiers.

Suthep, who was in charge of national security and thus tasked with overseeing the security situation during the protests as director of the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES), authorized security forces to disperse the protests back in 2010 (including the use of deadly force) and has since then repeatedly rejected any responsibility or blame for the deaths of the protesters. At one point he even suggetsed that they "ran into the bullets". In late 2013, he quit Abhisit's Democrat Party and became an unlikely protest leader against the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra (who the red shirts support).

The nearly half year of prolonged rallies and sabotaging created the political impasse the military used a pretext to carry out a coup on May 22 - Suthep claims this to be planned since 2010. Ever since the coup and a very brief detainment by the junta, Suthep has entered Buddhist monkhood and is essentially under political asylum.

Thursday's dismissal means that any accountability on the army's part is very unlikely, especially under the military junta. Its leader, army chief and Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha was deputy commander-in-chief during the 2010 crackdown and since becoming army chief a year later he has actively interfered in the DSI's investigation:

On August 16, 2012, Prayuth told the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation to stop accusing soldiers of killing demonstrators during the government’s crackdown on the “Red Shirt” protest in 2010 and not to report publicly on the progress of its investigations. Prayuth has denied any army abuses during the violence in which at least 98 people died and more than 2,000 were injured, despite numerous accounts by witnesses and other evidence.

Prayuth is also using Thailand’s archaic criminal defamation law to deter public criticism, Human Rights Watch said. On August 17, Prayuth ordered an army legal officer to file a criminal defamation complaint against Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer representing the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) and exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and Amsterdam’s translator. At a UDD rally on May 19, Amsterdam gave a speech in which he alleged that the army committed brutality against demonstrators for which it should be held accountable.

"Thailand: Army Chief Interfering in Investigations", Human Rights Watch, August 23, 2012

The DSI chief Tharit Pengdit, who reportedly apologized to Prayuth for the accusations back then, was removed from his post shortly following the military coup.

While the main charge of premeditated murder has been dropped by the Criminal Court for now, it doesn't mean the end of legal challenges for Abhisit and Suthep, as other avenues have already been explored:

Since a petition has also been filed against Mr Abhisit and Mr Suthep with the National Anti-Corruption Commission, which is responsible for handling criminal cases against politicians, the court also ruled that if the NACC finds the petition against them has sufficient grounds, the graft agency is duty-bound to forward the case to the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Holders of Political Posts for further consideration.

"Abhisit, Suthep murder case rejected", Bangkok Post, August 28, 2014

Given Thursday's dismissal by the Criminal Court, the generally slow pace of the investigations and the current ruling military junta, it will be now even less than likely that anybody from the past Abhisit administration - let alone the army - be held accountable for the deaths during the 2010 protests, as prolonged impunity adds to the growing pile of reasons for the political conflict, no matter who is calling the shots right now.

Thailand's political crisis exacerbates: Welcome to Quagmire Country

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 16, 2014 Welcome to Quagmire Country. Last week Thailand's acting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted after a Constitutional Court ruling ruled that she has illegally transferred the head of National Security Council. This was followed by an indictment by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for negligence of duty in the rice-pledging scheme, which could result in her impeachment and banishing from politics for five years. She was replaced by interim Prime Minister Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, a Thaksin confidante and former executive in his various companies.

Embolden by the news, the anti-government protesters led by Suthep Thuagsuban stepped up their rallies again, harassing and coercing TV stations to broadcast their speeches and not the government security official's announcements. Earlier this week, they moved out of Lumphini Park and moved back to Ratchadamnoen Road where they started their campaign over six months ago.

Meanwhile, the Senate convened initially only to confirm a new executive for the NACC, as dictated by a royal decree - but also decided to elect a new Senate speaker. The vote went to Surachai Liengboonlertchai, an appointed senator and the former deputy speaker - and the preferred choice of the anti-government protesters. But that vote may or may not have overreached what the decree dictated and may be legally challenged, while Surachai awaits royal confirmation.

This highlights the current importance of the Senate - the half-elected, half-appointed upper chamber - in this current political stalemate. For instance, 90 (or three fifths) of the 150-strong Senate are needed in order to impeach former PM Yingluck. Also, as currently the only representative body left in Thailand, calls by the protesters for it to appoint a 'neutral' caretaker government are getting louder and has been considered aloud by some senators in informal sessions and secret backdoor meetings, raising more questions and doubt than actual solutions and confidence.

The new Prime Minister Niwatthamrong had to hit the ground running and pushed for the proposed July 20 elections to go ahead. For that he met with the Election Commission (EC) on Thursday, but that was cut short when a mob led by Suthep bursted onto the compound and forced Niwatthamrong to flee - despite a change of location due to security concerns. The EC then swiftly declared that July 20 elections are "unlikely" in the same reluctant manner we saw before the earlier attempt on February 2.

It was yet another symbolic blow for the remaining Cabinet, as Suthep & co. have already occupied a building of the besieged Government House and made it their center of operations. The EC and earlier this week the Senate speaker-elect have welcomed Suthep and his co-leaders openly to discuss the protesters' solution, giving them the sort of legitimacy Suthep is seeking after months of bullying.

One has to wonder whether or not the EC and the Senate are openly chaperoning Suthep and his demands for an appointed caretaker government, since the protesters claim that there's a 'political vacuum' now after Yingluck's ouster and PM Niwatthamrong has very limited powers. In fact, the Senate speaker-elect Surachai has threatened to go ahead with the 'neutral' PM and stated the importance of not letting "laws impede ability to solve Thai crisis". The thin veneer of impartiality of many (especially appointed) senators is yet another casualty along a long line of politicized institutions and government agencies that are supposed to be neutral.

With the red shirts rallying outside Bangkok, but staying put for now and yet another deadly attack killing 3 protesters on Wednesday night,  the so far gun-shy military issued its sharpest statement yet. Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha threatened to "launch a full-scale effort to end the violence, in order to maintain order", if such violent incidents do not stop.

Thailand is now entering a crucial junction where tensions could exacerbate even more depending on what the Senate will do next. The immediate fate and future of the country is being decided (yet again) by a few behind closed doors whose 'reform' ideas are nebulous at best at this moment. Should Suthep's demands be met by an accommodating Senate and other government agencies, the caretaker government be toppled and a replacement to be appointed, the country is inching from a sustained political crisis towards a fully destructive impasse, under which a compromise is becoming even more difficult than it already is. Then Thailand really becomes the Quagmire Country.

Thai PM Yingluck challenged to live TV debate by protest leader Suthep

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 28, 2014 During the campaign for the 2011 general elections, then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party proposed a televised debate with his challenger Yingluck Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party, in the hope that the well-skilled public speaker could score some points against an at that time inexperienced and unproven politician - who ultimately declined. Since then, Pheu Thai assumed the rule, Yingluck became prime minister and Abhisit lost his manners. Furthermore, the Democrat Party has entirely given up on elections, many of its senior figures have now taken to the streets, bringing the entire political discourse to a halt.

For four months, anti-government protesters in Bangkok have done a lot - most of all disrupting the February 2 elections - in order to topple the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in their ongoing "crusade" to "eradicate" Yingluck's brother Thaksin's strong influence on Thai politics. In his regular nightly (and rabble-rousing) speeches, protest leader Suthep Thuagsuban reflects the group's uncompromising attitude and has consistently refused to negotiate with the caretaker government whatsoever (as seen here, here, here and just as recently as last Tuesday - links via Bangkok Pundit).

This stance, however, changed on Thursday:

Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has challenged Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to one-on-one talks broadcast live on television in a bid to end the political deadlock. (...)

"If Khun Yingluck really wants to find a solution through talks, I ask her to make an appointment for a one-on-one meeting with me in an open setting," Suthep told reporters. "The talks should be broadcast live on TV so that the people know what is going on."

"Suthep calls for live TV talks with Yingluck", The Nation, February 28, 2014

The last time a Thai government openly held talks with anti-government protesters was in 2010 when then-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva met with the pro-Thaksin red shirts. While the talks were televised for everyone to see, the two-day negotiations ended in no result. But that was just three weeks into the protests and way before things really escalated. These current protests are entering their fifth month.

The timing of this apparent turnaround is noteworthy: the overall situation deteriorated with last week's attempts by the authorities to reclaim some protest sites escalating into a gunfight with protesters, killing six. Last weekend then saw attacks on rally sites in Bangkok and Trat that killed five people - four children were among the victims. Also since then, there have been reports of almost nightly gunfire and explosions near rally sites.

Politically the caretaker government is under pressure. It suffered a defeat at the hands of the judiciary last week when the Constitutional Court rejected its petition to outlaw the protests, showing remarkable indifference to the protesters' actions. Following that decision the Civil Court restricted the authorities' powers to deal with the protesters, effectively banning the dispersal of the rallies.

Caretaker-PM Yingluck herself is facing charges by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) for allegedly neglecting her duty in her implementation of the government's populist rice-pledging scheme. She did not personally show up to hear the charges and the red shirts - taking a page from the anti-government protesters' playbook - have chained up the anti-corruption agency.

PM Yingluck's reply to Suthep's live TV debate proposal:

Prime Minister Yingluck agrees to engage in a peaceful negotiation with Mr. Suthep. (...) Prime Minister asked Mr. Suthep whether he is ready to have the negotiation under the principle of the present Constitution and whether he is ready to end the protest to pave the way for the election (...) Though there is no basic principle for the negotiation process to be successful, there should at least be a common goal that both sides would initially like to attain through negotiation. If both sides continue to hold different view on the process, it would be difficult to find a common ground. (...) If each party does not show any sign of flexibility, in the end, we would not be able to find a common ground.

"Unofficial Translation of PM Yingluck’s reaction to Mr.Suthep’s announcement that is is ready to negotiate as reported in the Thai press." via Suranand Vejjajiva, February 27, 2014

Her statement is neither a flat-out rejection nor a full agreement: The protesters would have to end their rally and any proposal that is not "under the principle of the constitution" (e.g. Yingluck replaced by a 'neutral' caretaker-PM) would not be accepted by the government. And then there's the format itself:

"The talks have to have a framework though I am not sure what that framework would look like," she told reporters in the town of Chiang Mai in the north, a Thaksin stronghold. "But many parties have to be involved because I alone cannot answer on behalf of the Thai people."

"Thai PM faces negligence charges as protest leader broaches talks", Reuters, February 27, 2014

Leaving aside the previous remarks from the anti-government camp that she's incapable of making her own decisions without consulting her brother Thaksin, it appears unlikely that Yingluck would verbally go head-to-head with Suthep, who has constantly hardened his rhetoric against her - often below the belt.

But on the other hand, months of street protests resulting in 21 deaths and hundreds of injured have possibly worn out the early enthusiasm of the anti-government protesters, as seen in the shrinking attendance numbers. Suthep, who previously had an interest in escalating the protests, might be looking now at an exit strategy in these talks.

P.S.: Suthep has also challenged Chalerm Yubamrung, the labor minister who's also overseeing the security situation, to a fistfight...!