By THE NATION
"As peaceful protests in Thailand grow, the authorities continue to use vague, overly restrictive laws to harass and silence people," said Rajat Khosla, Amnesty International’s senior director for research, advocacy and policy.
“The steadily growing protests across Thailand are clear proof of how much people value their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
“Instead of maintaining a safe space for people to express their opinions, authorities have repeatedly criminalised peaceful protests through Thailand’s vaguely worded and draconian laws. Charges brought against the supposed protest leaders are merely tactics to scare the whole movement. They are arbitrary, unwarranted and politically motivated,” Khosla said.
At least 84 people have been charged since October 13, the start of a wave of near-daily mass rallies that followed regular protests across Thailand starting in February. The protests were prompted by the Constitutional Court dissolving the Future Forward party, popular with many young people. Among those charged are two teenagers, aged 16 and 17.
The overwhelmingly peaceful protests have coalesced around three demands: dissolving Parliament and holding fresh elections; political reforms including reforms to the monarchy and revising the military-drafted Constitution; and ending the harassment of peaceful government critics.
In response to mounting protests, on October 15, the authorities declared a “severe” state of emergency, banning gatherings of five people or more in Bangkok, as well as the publication of news or online messages that “could create fear”, affect national security or damage public morale.
The “severe” state of emergency was lifted on Thursday, following a televised address by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha the previous evening. Authorities, however, continue to enjoy emergency powers under a separate Emergency Decree in effect since May 2020, ostensibly to control the Covid-19 pandemic.
In his speech on Wednesday, the prime minister described the protesters as “peaceful, well-meaning people who are genuine in their desire for a better society and a better nation”, although he accused a minority of committing crimes. He highlighted the role of the special parliamentary sessions scheduled on October 26-27 to "discuss and resolve these differences through the parliamentary process”.
“The prime minister acknowledged that protesters have been overwhelmingly peaceful and lifted the state of emergency. This was a welcome recognition by the government of the right to protest and a de-escalation in the authorities’ approach,” said Khosla.
“But the authorities must now move beyond rhetoric and drop the charges against peaceful protesters. This should include quashing convictions of all others penalised since the 2019 elections for peacefully calling for reform or expressing political views.”
A total of 90 people have been detained since October 13, with 84 charged. Six were released without any charges, most others were released on bail. Eight remain in detention, including student protest leaders Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak; lawyer Arnon Nampa; former prisoners of conscience Patiwat “Bank” Saraiyaem, Ekachai Hongkangwan and Somyot Pruksakasemsuk; activist Panupong “Mike” Chadnok and child welfare activist Suranat “Tan” Paenprasert.