The Deteriorating State of Free Expression in Thailand
May 22 marks one year since the military coup in Thailand led by now-Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who seized power from Prime Minster Yingluck Shinawatra. Since the coup, rights to free expression have been widely and scathingly curtailed by Chan-ocha’s government, as have a number of other human rights, including association and assembly. According to Freedom House, Thailand classifies as “Not Free” in regards to media freedom, and its global ranking has plummeted from #141 to #166 worldwide in the past year.
Adding to the deteriorating state of freedom of expression in Thailand, on April 1, 2015, Chan-ocha issued Order Number 3/2558, formally ending martial law. But under the Order, invoked under Article 44 of the junta-imposed interim constitution, the military junta will remain in power and new rules will allow for continued official censorship of the media, outlawing of political gatherings, and expansion of the military’s extrajudicial powers to search, arrest, and detain individuals for up to seven days without a court warrant or any formal charges. The vaguely worded Article 44 calls for “the prevention, abatement, or suppression of any act detrimental to national order or security, royal throne, national economy, or public administration.” Article 44 also provides the Prime Minister with unlimited powers, including authority over the judicial and legislative branches of government as well as total legal immunity.
The formal end of martial law in Thailand is merely a veneer covering up, among many other attacks on civil rights, extensive restrictions on free speech and widespread censorship implemented from the start of the coup throughout the time Chan-ocha has been in power. At the onset of martial law, the ruling junta arrested several journalists and shut down numerous websites and broadcast media outlets. Later that year, the military junta issued Order 103, which outlawed any criticism of the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), and Order 97, which prohibited criticism towards the military authorities. In Thailand, defamation is a criminal offence, and Chan-ocha’s government has convicted writers and human rights activists on charges of defamation. Charges of defamation—particularly lèse majesté, or defamation of the monarch—have often been used against political opponents or those citizens advocating for human rights as a way to silence and intimidate critical voices and activists. Thus, it is clear that Order 3/2558 ending martial law is a brazen ploy to lure overseas business dollars back to Thailand while permitting the military to continue to violate the rights of the Thai population both within and outside the borders of Thailand.
Less than a month after martial law was “lifted,” Thai authorities shuttered Peace TV, a station aligned with the elected government ousted during last year’s coup, for “airing content that leads to conflicts.” The secretary general of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), a government regulator, also announced that the NBTC would move to suspend or withdraw the licenses of nearly 200 radio stations for airing news critical of the government. Exacerbating the situation in Thailand have been General Chan-ocha’s recent remarks about executing any journalist that does not report “the truth”—his truth, which is highly subjective and depends on the whims of the regime.
These restrictions and threats posed by the military regime have caused a number of dissenting Thais to flee into self-imposed exile in fear of their lives and personal safety. Spread out among neighboring countries, as well as much further in Europe or the United States, these exiles live in defiance of the military junta’s restrictions on free expression. Some have even banded together to create the Free Thais for Democracy and Human Rights movement to discuss strategies and actions that would help unify their goals for democracy and human rights against the junta. Others, like filmmakers Wanchelearm Satsaksit and Neti Wichiansaen, are trying to combat restrictions on free speech in Thailand by interviewing Thai exiles in countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, and Germany with the aim of creating a film to raise awareness about the challenges facing pro-democracy Thais inside and outside of Thailand today. However, the resolve of these exiles has been tested by many obstacles. Some have had their passports revoked by the military regime and therefore cannot obtain visas for entry into other countries that maintain ties with the Thai military regime or that appease of the Chan-ocha government, leaving many in residential limbo and yet unable to return to Thailand, their families, and their old lives.
The outcomes of the oppressive Order Number 3/2558—the ongoing crackdown to free speech within Thailand, the precarious situation of Thai dissidents in exile, and General Chan-ocha’s threatening verbal rhetoric—illustrate the extremely limited environment for free expression in and about Thailand since the military coup occurred a year ago. Continued advocacy by rights groups and individuals, as well as diplomatic pressure from governments, is needed to reverse these negative trends and help return Thailand to its earlier position as a beacon of openness in South East Asia.