Arbitrary detentions, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, torture claims - a new report by Amnesty International finds Thailand's junta is violating human rights and creating a climate of fear. DW examines.
"I told them I have the right to talk to lawyers and my family. And they told me to shut up. 'You are a captive and you have no right to speak.'" These are the words of a Thai citizen speaking to Amnesty International (AI) on condition of anonymity after being detained under Martial Law, which bans political gatherings and allows the detention of "dissidents" for up to seven days without charge.
The statement is part of a comprehensive investigation conducted by the rights group into Thailand's human rights situation since the country's military imposed Martial Law on May 20 and seized power two days later in a coup.
In the September 11 report titled Attitude adjustment - 100 days under Martial Law, AI accuses the ruling junta of engaging in systemic arbitrary arrests and detentions of hundreds of people, restricting freedom of expression and assembly, pursuing lèse majesté charges, and cracking down on independent media.
Moreover, the 65-page report criticizes the government's record of altering the nation's institutional and legal framework to stop "political activities" and "adjust attitudes" of would-be dissenters. "Three and a half months since the coup, a picture emerges from our investigations of widespread and far-reaching human rights violations perpetrated by the military government that are ongoing," said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Director.
A necessary coup?
The man behind the coup, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, has argued that the military takeover on May 22 was necessary to avoid further bloodshed following months of political turmoil pitting anti-government demonstrators against supporters of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The protests had left 28 people dead and hundreds wounded.
Claiming to want to free Thailand from a vicious circle of political instability, General Prayuth - appointed premier in August by a military-dominated legislative assembly - swiftly set out to suppress dissent by, among other things, detaining hundreds of people without charge and deploying troops to quell any resistance in the weeks following the takeover. The 60-year old then ruled out holding new elections before October 2015, despite international appeals for a return to democracy.
The ruling junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has since tried to present itself in a positive light by launching a "national happiness" campaign, and reassuring foreign investors, tourists and fellow Thais that calm has been restored to Southeast Asia's second largest economy.
Changing the law
But analysts and human rights monitors have a different view. "As both junta leader and prime minister, General Prayuth has vowed to respect human rights, but hasn't followed through his words with actions," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Prayuth could start by ordering an end to arbitrary arrests and secret detentions, releasing all those wrongfully held," Adams added.
Analysts say the junta's crackdown on dissent and its use of arbitrary detentions violate fundamental human rights
One of the main controversies revolves around changes made to Thailand's existing laws. Just a few weeks after the takeover, the military voided the 2007 constitution, thus eliminating the entire system of legal protections set to guarantee political rights and civil liberties in the country. Instead, the new interim constitution - enacted in July - granted the NCPO the power to intervene in matters it deemed "destructive to the peace and safety of the country."
Crackdown on free speech
Moreover, the military proceeded to announce over 200 decrees, a majority of which are viewed by activists as infringing on human rights. "Many of these laws and orders in and of themselves inherently violate human rights, including by creating restrictions on human rights which go beyond those allowed under international law," say the authors of the AI report.
For instance, on July 18, the NCPO prohibited criticism of the operations of the junta and its personnel by anyone on all forms of media. It issued an order calling on media outlets and "any other individuals" to refrain from disseminating information that "could harm national security" or criticize the work of the ruling military council.
Gregory Poling, Thailand expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), described the current human rights situation in the country as "increasingly restrictive." He argued the junta has restricted the right of citizens to gather in groups of five or more, and to engage in any activities of a political nature. "It has shut down private radio stations, tightened a clampdown on online and social media, and created an overall atmosphere of self-censorship among both journalists and academics."
AI's Richard Bennett shares this view: "It has become part of the military government's modus operandi to crack down on the smallest forms of dissent, such as wearing T-shirts that could 'promote division' or reading certain books in symbolic protest against military rule," Bennett said.
There are also concerns that restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are having an impact on the work of rights activists and organizations. On September 2, for instance, a debate about access to justice was scrapped due to pressure from the junta, prompting the United Nations to express serious concern about the "deteriorating environment for human rights defenders" in the country.
But probably the most worrying trend - which sets this coup apart from its 2006 predecessor - is the degree to which the junta has committed to policing not only public expressions of dissent, but even private disagreements.
"The use of arbitrary detentions as 'cooling off' periods and opportunities for 'reflection,' along with the demand that academics, students, and private individuals help police and report dissent among their neighbors has created an atmosphere of uncertainty, fear, and distrust," said Poling.
Indeed, he adds, the attempt to police private thoughts and opinions goes beyond mere military authoritarianism; it has "disturbingly totalitarian undertones."
Paul Chambers, Director of Research at the Thailand-based Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, has a similar view. "In essence, perhaps the military is not engaged in extreme amounts of human rights violations all over Thailand. But, under the martial law act of 1914 - which is now in place - the military can act with legal impunity to do what it wants, when it wants, to whomever it wants, for as long as it wants - all rationalized to protect Thailand's kingdom," the analyst said.
To date, the NCPO has largely relied on temporary detentions and threats to cow dissidents. Hundreds of Thais - especially those aligned with the former Shinawatra government, academics, and members of independent media - have been called in for questioning and temporary detention. As a condition for their release, those detained have been forced to sign agreements not to engage in political activities or criticize the military regime.
"The majority of those are now constrained by arbitrary restrictions on their liberties under threat of prosecution, and scores may now face unfair trials for peacefully exercising their human rights," the AI report states.
Some detainees have even reportedly been held incommunicado in military camps and others in unofficial places of detention. In at least two cases, individuals have been subject to enforced disappearances, according to the paper.
'In constant fear of death'
More recently, allegations of torture or other ill-treatment, ranging from beatings and asphyxiation to mock executions, have emerged.
Kritsuda Khunasen, a political activist detained five days after the coup, was quoted in the report as saying: "If I was too slow when answering, didn't speak, didn't answer the question in a direct manner … I was beaten with a fist to my face, stomach and body… The worst that I experienced was when they placed a plastic bag over my head, tied up the ends and put a cloth bag over my head. This knocked me unconscious and I was brought back by throwing water on me… I finally knew what it felt like to be in constant fear of death."
The junta's attempts to police private thoughts and opinions go beyond mere military authoritarianism, analysts say
Analysts are of the view that the junta's crackdown on dissent and its use of arbitrary detentions violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
While it is true that the NCPO has informed the United Nations that it has suspended most of those obligations - as allowed by the treaty in order to deal with a public emergency - rights groups and analysts such as Poling argue that the restrictions placed on civil and political rights seem to go far beyond those strictly necessary to prevent violence and preserve the nation.
'Thailand has rights obligations'
In light of this development, human rights groups call on Thai authorities to repeal "abusive" laws and orders, lift all charges against any individuals brought solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, and immediately release those detained or imprisoned under such charges.
"Thailand has international human rights obligations that cannot be ignored in the name of 'national security' - current restrictions on freedoms are far too sweeping," said Bennett.
The rights activist also calls on the international community to take all opportunities, including the current session of the Human Rights Council, to encourage the junta to "change its course" and ensure the respect for human rights that is necessary "if it is to achieve its stated aim of national reconciliation."