Standing up for human rights

Sirawit Seritiwat gives away newspapers published by his activist group earlier this year. Photo: Apichart Jinakul

On May 22, 2014, student activist Rangsiman Rome — then an intern at the Secretariat of State — was travelling to Thammasat University’s Tha Prachan campus, to take part in an anti-coup demonstration organised by some of his professors.

“Martial law had been imposed a couple of days before. Everyone knew we were headed for a coup,” he said.

It was also on that occasion that Rangsiman saw historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul for the last time, as the military took power that afternoon. The academic, who was among the first people to be summoned for “attitude adjustment” left the country soon after.

Three years have gone by, and Somsak’s face is not the only one that has disappeared from the circuit of regime critics and human rights defenders partaking in pro-democracy activities.

“Many of us felt coerced to give up at one point or another,” Rangsiman adds. Some activists, feeling too much pressure, slowly faded away. Others were openly arrested and faced criminal charges.

Just last year, the mother of prominent citizen activist Sirawit Serithiwat — also known as “Ja New” — was charged with lèse majesté in response to an allegedly unlawful Facebook message.

Her case was followed, a few months later, by that of Khon Kaen activist Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, a member of the Dao Din group. Jatupat faced the same criminal charge after he shared a BBC news report on social media. He remains in pretrial detention to this day, having been refused bail several times.

Other such attempts to intimidate activists, whether they are fighting for political, social or environmental causes, take place regularly — many of which go unreported.

Brave campaign. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International Thailand

“Attacks on human rights defenders are not new,” says Piyanut Kotsan, executive director of Amnesty International Thailand. “However, for three years now, they have become systematic and are supported by the law as well as the government’s orders.”

Last week, Amnesty International launched its “Brave” campaign, to raise concern over the protection of human rights defenders worldwide. One of the campaign’s activities in Thailand entitled “The Brave” will take place at Lumpini Park tomorrow to support the work of human rights activists.

There will also be graffiti art and music at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) on the same day as part of the campaign.

Although its inauguration date closely coincides with the third anniversary of the military coup, this is a global campaign, Piyanut explains.

Nearly 70 countries have seen attacks on their human rights defenders multiply — and Thailand is one of them, with authorities targeting lawyers, local community leaders or youth activists.

“Yet, these are the brave ones, who are still trying to exercise their right to speak out,” Piyanut said, calling for society at large to support human rights defenders.

While smear campaigns and stigmatisation are still rampant, legal harassment or prosecution are more and more common, human rights advocates argue.

According to Rangsiman, there are typically three or four degrees of harassment which activists commonly face in several cases.

“At first, soldiers would ‘invite’ you to have coffee with them, and ask you to cease your activities,” he says.

The next step is when activists are summoned to meetings in military camps and must sign a memorandum of understanding — in which they promise to remain silent in future — in order to secure their release. On several occasions, soldiers also visited activists’ family homes and intimidated their relatives.

“If all else fails, they’ll arrest and charge you,” the student activist concluded.

Rangsiman Rome. Photo: Apichit Jinakul

Over the past three years, most human rights defenders have accumulated a rather high number of criminal charges against them — most of them ranging from violating the junta’s ban on public gathering, to sedition and lèse majesté.

“The National Council for Peace and Order has put in place a set of laws and orders that make it difficult for human rights defenders to operate,” argues Kingsley Abbott, a legal analyst with the International Commission of Jurists.

It’s important to note, he adds, that many of the measures that were implemented in May 2014, right after the military coup, are still in place today.

A number of pre-existing laws, such as defamation, sedition or lèse majesté charges, as well as the Computer Crime Act have been used on various occasions by authorities to prevent human rights defenders from conducting their work.

“Three co-authors of a report denouncing torture practices in the far South were sued for defamation and faced penalties under the Computer Crime Act just last year,” Abbott adds.

More rights violations will go unreported or unaccounted for if human rights defenders are continually harassed — which in turn will have negative consequences for the government.

At the moment, authorities’ targeting of activists and human rights defenders sends a strong message to the rest of the Thai society.

“They are signalling to people that this kind of criticism will not be accepted.”

Rangsiman confesses that many pro-democracy activists see no way out of the current situation.

“We have to admit that the military crossed some lines we didn’t see coming,” he says. “We have to be more watchful now.”