As the third anniversary of the May 22, 2014, coup by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) approaches, there are few signs of an end to military rule in Thailand. The NCPO has used—and abused—the law and the civilian and military courts to repress dissident speech and political action. Since the coup, at least ninety people have been charged with “lèse majesté,” or insulting the monarchy, fifty-eight with sedition, and 254 with violating the ban on public assemblies of five or more persons. Those charged, particularly in lèse majesté cases, can face up to fifteen years imprisonment per count, and a range of actions—Facebook posts, bathroom graffiti, political theater—have been criminalized. Opposition to the regime is rare because the potential consequences of dissenting, or even expressing support for those who do so, are grave.
Preecha Kaewbanpaew, a retired teacher who gave flowers to members of Resistant Citizen, a dissident political group, learned this firsthand when he was fined 4,000 baht and sentenced to three months imprisonment (subsequently suspended) for doing so. Ironically, it is the courts—the very sites where repression is codified—where activists are also presenting the deepest challenges to military rule. Activists with Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR), a group established in the first week following the coup, document human rights violations and provide legal defense to those accused of political crimes. The NCPO views those accused of crimes against the crown and state as guilty until proven innocent, and so innocent verdicts are difficult to secure. Even when the court suspends a prison sentence, such as in the case of Preecha, dissident actions are considered crimes. In a quiet, steady response to this, TLHR also works with their clients to file petitions and cases against the military for their illegal actions. On the one-year anniversary of the coup, Resistant Citizen filed a case against the NCPO for launching the coup and abrogating the constitution, actions that constitute rebellion and treason and can be punished under Thai criminal law with the death penalty.
At first, the criminal court and then the appeals court threw out the charges against the NCPO, arguing that the NCPO included an amnesty clause for its members in the interim constitution it established after the coup (and so both the coup and all subsequent actions were legal). Despite the seeming lack of success of such actions, the petitions and cases filed by TLHR are both a direct challenge to military rule and a record of its excesses. The proof of the efficacy of the work of TLHR and others who defend the law is perhaps most evident in the criminal prosecution of one of its lawyers, Sirikan Charoensiri, for alleged sedition. When fourteen of her student activist clients were remanded, their cell phones were stored in her car. She refused an illegal, warrantless search of her car. In a time of military rule in Thailand, state authorities can forgive themselves for any crime committed and so it is natural that insisting that they follow the law is considered seditious. TLHR’s growing record of these excesses awaits the end of military rule and is a necessary, and hopeful gesture, towards a return to democracy and the rule of law.
Tyrell Haberkorn is a Fellow at Australian National University and writes about state violence and human rights in Thailand.