Human rights in northeastern Thailand: An assessment of the situation eighteen months after the coup

By Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) 

After seizing power from the democratically elected government in the name of the restoration of peace and order on 22 May 2014, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and the military junta have used various means to restrict and control the people. The rule of the regime is in direct conflict with the exercise of rights and freedom, which had been present in Thailand under prior democratic governments. The negative impact of the rule on the people has been significant and wide-ranging.

Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) has monitored the human rights situation since the abrogation of democracy. We have both spoken with those directly affected and compiled information from various media outlets in order to assess the human rights situation in the Northeast over the eighteen months subsequent to the coup (22 May 2014 – November 2015). Although the cases documented by TLHR constitute only a fraction of the total cases, they are broadly representative of the human rights situation in the Northeast and in Thailand as a whole.

Summons for detention in the name of peace and order

After launching the coup, the NCPO declared martial law nationwide. This empowered state officials to detain individuals for up to seven days without having to bring charges against them. Subsequently, the NCPO issued a series of national orders to officially summon 472 individuals to report themselves. A total of 37 orders were issued and politicians, academics, activists and members of various political factions were among those summoned. The NCPO claimed that the reason for these summonses was, “so that the measures to restore peace were carried out in an orderly fashion.”

In contrast to the NCPO’s practice of official summons, most people in the Northeast have been summoned to report themselves to the local military barracks via other means. This includes being summoned via letter from the provincial Peace and Order Maintenance Command, being summoned via telephone, being taken from one’s home, and being met at one’s home.  During the first period following the coup, most of those who were summoned were politicians and members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and Red Shirt activists with a history of activism or involvement in mobilizing demonstrations. High profile figures were frequently detained in military barracks for several days and had to sign a contract agreeing to stop political activity upon release. During this initial period, students, faculty members and other people who organized anti-coup activities were summoned for attitude adjustment and asked to cease their political activism.

Shortly after the coup, in June 2014, the NCPO issued Order No. 64/2557 on the suppression and prevention of forest resource exploitation. Order No. 64/2557 was invoked by state officials to evict people from forests starting with six villages in the Dong Yai Forest Reserve. When the villagers attempted to negotiate, eleven of them were instead taken for attitude adjustment at the Somdej Chao Phraya Military Camp in Buriram province.

Subsequently, villagers active on local issues have increasingly been summoned to report themselves. After lifting martial law on 1 April 2015, the NCPO issued NCPO Head Order No. 3/2558 which invoked authority from Article 44 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim) of B.E. 2557 (C.E. 2014) to summon people and otherwise “maintain peace and order.”
In terms of numbers, at least 200 individuals were unofficially summoned by the authorities in the Northeast to report themselves and asked to stop their activism. This included more than 60 individuals who were members of the UDD, Red Shirts or pro-democracy activists. This number also included at least 35 students from Mahasarakham University and Khon Kaen University, at least 20 academics, at least 50 core villager leaders, and at least 10 activists and NGO workers.

Many of these individuals have been summoned more than once. Some are regularly visited by the military or have to report themselves weekly to the military barracks so that the authorities can track their political activities. Some are visited by the military close to important anniversaries such as the first anniversary of the coup. University students and faculty members have also been closely surveilled since  the Dao Din activists flashed the three-finger salute (drawn from the film The Hunger Games) in front of General Prayuth Chan-ocha when he visited Khon Kaen in November 2014.

In addition to being subject to surveillance during their everyday lives, dissidents in the Northeast have found themselves vulnerable to online surveillance as well. At least seven university faculty members were instructed by the authorities to refrain from posting on Facebook. A leader of the Pak Moon dam movement was ordered to deactivate his Facebook account and was summoned after making a post critical of the government and a public statement demanding that the authorities “cease threatening people’s rights and freedoms and revoke martial law.” In addition, during the period while the Dao Din student activists were held in custody at the Bangkok Remand Prison from 27 June to 7 July 2015, the military went to various areas and ordered the villagers to stop posting messages of solidarity with them.

Restrictions in the name of peace and order have also crept into the university, which is supposed to be a realm of freedom of thought, speech and interaction in the service of engendering wisdom. Instead, in at least two universities in the Northeast, the military drive their Humvees to patrol and take photographs on the university campuses almost daily. They have even asked to take photographs of some students and faculty members. In some cases, military officers enter and lurk in classrooms and ask to join the discussion. As a result, lecturers must refrain from discussing any sensitive issues in order to avoid drawing unnecessary attention from the military. The military even asked to have a meeting with university administrators to ask them to assist in the monitoring of students and to prevent them from acting against the government. Some administrators responded by helping to monitor and put surveillance mechanisms in place to prevent students from opposing the government. In other words, some universities serve the military by suppressing and restricting the freedom of their own students.

Banning public events and demonstrations, including a children’s camp

On the basis of the authority afforded by martial law, the NCPO promulgated NCPO Announcement No. 7/2557, which bans all political gatherings of five or more people. State officials have interpreted the measure broadly and used it extensively to shut down public events, including both those which aimed to publicize information regarding natural resources and those which promoted discussion about questions of rights and democracy.

State officials have attempted to halt or intervened in at least 14 public events, including a children’s camp organized by youth activists in Ban Na Nong Bong in Loei Province. The authorities forced the cancellation of at least 15 public activities, including a meeting of the Northeastern Forest and Land Network to develop strategies to address problems arising from the enforcement of NCPO Order No. 64/2557 and the implementation of the Forestry Master Plan. State officials asked the organizers to turn the meeting into a cultural activity and threatened them with arrest if they did not do so. In addition, members of Dao Din, the student activist group based at Khon Kaen University, faced retaliation from state officials after they held up banners displaying their opposition to state development projects. Their banners were seized and seven student activists were arrested and charged. Subsequently, authorities have continued to invoke NCPO Head Order No. 3/2558, Article 44 and the Public Assembly Act, which was promulgated under the regime, to restrict the right to freedom of assembly.[1]

Civilians tried in military courts

As a result of the promulgation of NCPO Announcement Nos. 37/2557, 38/2557 and 50/2557, civilians alleged to have committed certain offences are required to be tried in the military court system. These offences include those against the King, national security according to the Criminal Code and against the Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, Fireworks, and the Equivalent of Firearms Act (“Firearms Act”) and other offences per the Announcements or Orders of the NCPO.

According to the Department of the Judge Advocate General (JAG), from 22 May 2014 to 30 September 2015, there were 445 civilians who were defendants in courts in various Military Circles in the Northeast. Most of them were accused of violations under the Firearms Act (For further details, please see “Statistics of civilians tried in the military court system”).

According to information compiled by TLHR, at least seven individuals have been prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. They were alleged to have violated NCPO Head Order No. 3/2558, including the Dao Din student activists who organized an activity to mark the first anniversary of the coup. At least two individuals have been prosecuted for an offence against the King or the violation of Article 112 as a result of the expression of their opinions online and at least two additional others have been prosecuted for expressing their opinions via other means.

With respect to Firearms Act and other related weapons offences, the 26 defendants in the Khon Kaen Model case have been accused of conspiring to commit an act of terror, being members of a secret society, possessing firearms and weapons without permission. Several of the defendants are elderly men older than 60 years and the majority have no history of involvement in criminal activities Some of them said they had been invited to a meeting on farming rather than a meeting to prepare to launch an act of terror as they have been accused.

Aside from the above-mentioned cases, there are also firearms possession cases unrelated to political activism. TLHR has found that some villagers have been were charged simply for possessing cap guns used for hunting birds and mice for food. The majority have been tried in the military court system which inherently lacks independence and impartiality and further had no access to legal counsel. Only one member of the team of three judges is required to be a law graduate and military judges lack experience in adjudicating civilian cases. Further, if the alleged offences were committed while martial law was in force, from 22 May 2014 to 31 March 2015, no appeal of the decision or sentence is permitted. This means that defendants in military cases lack any  assurance of the right to fair trial.

In addition, there are at least two persons being tried in Article 112 cases in the military courts even though their alleged offences took place before the coup. This means that they should  be tried in the civilian criminal court.
 
Forest reclamation and land displacement

Led by the NCPO, the military junta has pushed forward a forest reclamation policy including the promulgation of NCPO Order No. 64/2557 and the Forestry Master Plan. The goal of these policies is to reclaim over 27 million rai, which has led to widespread dispute between the state and local people.

According to information provided by the People’s Movement for a Just Society (P-Move), the Assembly of the Poor and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as well as that collected by TLHR, these policies have affected at least 30 areas in 14 provinces in the Northeast and have led to charges being brought against more than 100 individuals. More than 15 of this number have already been convicted and sentenced to prison terms. These numbers are based only on complaints only from those areas in which local people have organized as groups to demand solutions and so the actual numbers may be much higher. In reality, the authorities often choose to target and raid areas in which people live in small, dispersed groups in order to prevent them from organizing and exercising bargaining power. In addition, martial law and Article 44 have been used to prevent villagers from organizing, meeting, mobilizing to address these problems, or otherwise exercising their rights.

At the beginning of December 2015, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MNRE) announced that as a result of the forest reclamation policy, the government had successfully reclaimed almost 300,000 rai of forest area countrywide and removed rubber trees planted on over 20,000 rai. The MNRE further stressed that the action was meant to take on rich investors, but in reality, TLHR has found that the implementation of the policy instead affected local villagers and led to the loss of their farmland. For example, villagers in six villages of the Dong Yai Forest Reserve in Buriram province were evicted and villagers in seven other villagers in the Tad Ton National Park in Chaiyaphum province were evicted. Many families were forced to migrate to Bangkok to do construction work. Other displaced villagers sought refuge living with their relatives and rented land to cultivate. Others became hired labourers and collect plants in the forest or sell groceries in the village. Many live in makeshift dwellings on the land of their neighbors.

It is difficult to estimate how many villagers have been made landless to date as a result of the forest reclamation operation. According to the Northeast NGO-Coordinating Committee on Rural Development (NGO-CORD), if there is no abatement or nullification and the forest reclamation policy is further pursued as planned, villagers in 352 areas or a total of 2,300 villages will be forced to vacate their land.

The forest reclamation policy has been implemented based on the junta’s premise that the villagers are encroachers and they need to be “controlled” and “suppressed.” This has thus led to the violation of the villagers’ fundamental rights, including the right to land and the right to a sufficient livelihood. It has become clear that the policy has been implemented to take away natural resources from the villagers and offer them to rich investors. After the so-called reclamation of the land of the villagers into protected forest areas, the junta has invoked Article 44 to revoke its protected area status and to declare it State Property Land in order to allow private investors to lease it as part of special economic zones and to push forward changes in law to allow investors to obtain concessions for mining on this land.

A development process that excludes the people

In addition to what has been noted above, the military junta has used the absolute power provided by martial law and Article 44 to suppress the movements of villagers who oppose or investigate large-scale development projects which affect their communities. There are at least 15 areas in the Northeast that have been affected, including the community of the Rak Ban Kerd Conservation Group which is opposed to gold mining in Loei province. The leaders of the group have been summoned by the military and asked to cease their political movement. Activities in the community, including meetings and campaigns, are prohibited. Similarly, villagers opposed to Wangsaphung Dam in Chaiyaphum province have been ordered not to protest.
Villagers in many areas are under close surveillance at all times.  They are supposed to obtain prior permission even for events such as traditional merit making ceremonies. A public forum to raise people’s awareness prior to a public hearing on the gold mine was ordered to be cancelled and the authorities ordered the removal of all banners and signs opposing the mine.

In addition, the military often presides over and moderates the forums set up for local villagers and representatives of the company to exchange opinions. They tend not to allow the villagers to express their opinions or to ask questions. For example, during a public hearing on the Bamnet Narong Power Plant in Chaiyaphum province, local villagers were not allowed to wear campaign t-shirts if they wanted to participate in the meeting. In another case, that of a potash mining project in Udon Thani province, the public hearing was organized inside a local military camp.

After the Public Assembly Act came into force in August 2015, the authorities were armed with an additional instrument to suppress the people. Both the police and military authorities invoke power from the Act to prevent people from organizing, expressing their opinions, and holding protest banners or signs. In some instances, activities which do not fall within the scope of political demonstration defined by the Act,  such as the opening of a fish sanctuary area by Pak Moon villagers, are still targeted. At least 14 individuals have been charged under the Public Assembly Act as a result of their actions, including those who demanded the suspension of the removal of the bus terminal in the city of Khon Kaen and those who demanded a solution to the problems faced by small-scale lottery sellers in Loei province.

While state officials have used special laws to repress the villagers’ political movements, these laws have not been used to contain the behavior of rich investors. In contrast, the laws have even been used in their favor. For example, the military forces used martial law to pressure members of the Rak Ban Kerd Conservation Group in Loei province to allow the mining company to transport ore out of the mine. In another case, military and police forces were deployed to facilitate the transportation of petroleum and gas exploration equipment to oil field close to Ban Na Moon in Khon Kaen province.

These conditions have resulted in the exclusion of villagers from at every stage of the decision-making processes concerning development projects, including investigation, review, and the demand for impact mitigation measures. As a result, large-scale development projects have sprung up and progressed much more rapidly under military rule that they would under a democratic regime. This includes a potash mining and coal-fired power plant project in Bamnet Narong district in Chaiyaphum province, an incinerator power plant project in Nong Khai province and a range of state development projects including the Pong Khun Petch Dam and special economic zones in Nong Khai, Mukdahan and Nakhon Phanom provinces. In all of these cases, insufficient impact mitigation measures that have been put in place. It is likely that many more people will have to suffer from the gross violation of their right to livelihood and their right to live in a decent environment.

The special economic zones, in particular, demonstrate clearly how the military junta invokes special power to override normal procedure. NCPO Head Order No. 17/2558, which was passed under Article 44, has resulted in the transformation of protected forest areas into State Property Land for state or private agencies to lease for periods of at least 50 years. People who used to live in such protected forest areas and do not possess land title deeds have been evicted without any provision for resettlement. Some have even been charged with encroachment, including at least 14 villagers in the Northeast who have been accused of encroaching on public land in Koke Phu Kratae in Nakhon Phanom province, which is one of the areas targeted for use as a special economic zone.

Moreover, the military junta has rushed to promulgate many laws during this undemocratic era in which public participation is gravely restricted. These laws, including the Mining Act and the Special Economic Zone Act,  provide the government with the authority to manage natural resources and to facilitate the operation of rich investors while undermining public participation and scrutiny. Therefore, even if the special laws (i.e., martial law and Article 44) are revoked in the future, the people will still lack the rights to manage natural resources and to determine their futures.

In sum, the human rights situation after the coup is one in which a significant number of the people have been stripped of their rights to freedom of speech, association and public assembly. This has impacted their freedom to carry out their daily lives, their right to access justice, and their right to live in a decent environment. The situation is a result of the enforcement of laws that afford draconian power to the authorities to act arbitrarily without any review. The laws have been used to stifle dissent, particularly of the marginalized, without regard for the rule of law or the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Law has been used to bolster the security of the junta and national security while excluding, and therefore dispossessing, the people. Such practices are incapable of bringing about long-term or sustainable solutions to the country’s problems.

[1] After lifting martial law on 1 April 2015, the NCPO issued NCPO Head Order No. 3/2558 invoking power from Article 44 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand (Interim), B.E. 2557 (2014) to “maintain peace and order” instead. 

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