A pro-democracy protester holds up a sign addressing Thailand's royal defamation laws during an anti-government demonstration in Bangkok on March 24. Section 112 of Thailand's Criminal Code stipulates heavy jail sentences for anyone found guilty of criticizing the royal family. (Photo: AFP)
Even as Thailand’s government has failed miserably to contain a raging Covid-19 outbreak, which has cost thousands of lives and millions of jobs, it has found enough time to persecute young activists who have been calling for democratic reforms in a country ruled by a repressive military-allied regime since 2014.
Some 700 people, most of them university and college students, have already been charged with various crimes over the past year as Thai authorities seek to penalize youngsters who have taken regularly to the streets of Bangkok and other cities with calls for long-overdue political change since youth-led street protests erupted last summer against the government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief who seized power in a coup seven long years ago.
Of these hundreds of people charged with serious crimes such as sedition and royal defamation, which could potentially land them in prison for decades, as many as 43 are teenagers under the age of 18, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR).
In all, more than 100 protesters have been charged with royal defamation, a crime in Thailand that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison per charge. Many of the young protesters have been slapped with numerous lese majeste charges over comments they made during protests criticizing the institution of the monarchy or members of the royal family.
As Thailand’s judiciary is deemed to be heavily politicized with its rulings in line with the demands and interests of the current regime, courts have conducted proceedings against suspects in a semi-secret atmosphere, thereby violating their rights, TLHR says in a newly released statement.
Thai courts have routinely “imposed overly strict measures in courtrooms, including limiting the number of audience or requiring a pre-approved permission. In all trials, the court forbade note taking, claiming it was to keep order [whose effects] were likely to undermine the principle of a free and fair trial,” the rights group says.
State authorities continuously monitor and harass people who posted monarchy-related content
Several prominent protest leaders have been detained indefinitely, although some were recently released after months in captivity on bail.
Yet it isn’t just in prison where pro-democracy demonstrators are being constantly monitored. In fact, Thai authorities operate a nationwide monitoring network tasked with stamping out all political opinions deemed contrary to the interests of those in power.
And even ordinary citizens can end up being at the receiving end of authorities’ attention for simply expressing their views online.
“State authorities continuously monitor and harass people who posted monarchy-related content,” TLHR notes.
“This month TLHR has also received reports that state authorities approached [at] least 18 citizens who expressed monarchy-related or political opinions at their homes. Likewise, people who share posts or texts about the monarchy are also subject to regular house visits.”
The rights group cites the case of a university student in the northern province of Lampang who received a visit from police officers and his village’s head after he had allegedly shared some content on social media about King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
The student was instructed to remove the post and refrain from posting similar content again.
In the town of Ayutthaya in central Thailand, meanwhile, an employee of a local company was placed under surveillance by police, who visited him twice at his home, because of social media posts critical of the monarchy.
The man in Ayutthaya, too, was told to stop engaging in such activities or else he would face criminal charges.
Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy has tanked with record unemployment and large-scale business closures
The large-scale surveillance of citizens is taking place against a backdrop of an economically ruinous outbreak of Covid-19 which has plunged millions of Thais into utter misery.
The Thai government’s much-heralded mass vaccination scheme, which kicked off at last after repeated delays in early June, has been a shambles from the get-go.
There has been a chronic shortage of vaccines as a result of opaque procurement procedures and the pell-mell distribution of available doses, a state of affairs that has resulted in millions of locals waiting for vaccines without much hope while the virus continues to infect and kill at an alarming rate with up to 10,000 new documented cases and 100 deaths a day.
At the same time, Thailand’s tourism-dependent economy has tanked with record unemployment and large-scale business closures. The longer the mismanagement of the crisis continues, the worse its fallout will be for the country’s long-suffering citizens.
It is high time Thailand’s government stopped persecuting its critics and got down to the business of tackling the grave challenges the country faces. Its failure to do the latter will lead to misery on an epic scale in the weeks and months to come.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.