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Climate of fear

Mar 19. 2019
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By Agence France-Presse
Bangkok

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Deaths, jail and cyber spies: The dangers of dissent in Thailand

Dead dissidents dumped in a river, activists knotted up by the courts, and Big Brother-style internet laws – critics of the junta fear this week’s election is poised to sharpen the dangers faced by those who disagree.

Thais goes to the polls on Sunday, in the first election since the 2014 coup that installed the generals in power.

But it will be held under new rules established by a junta that has made clear it has no intention of leaving the political stage.

Scores of dissidents, academics and red-shirt activists have been pushed into self-exile during the junta years, in what analysts say is one of the biggest political flights in Thailand’s recent history.

Some found sanctuary in the West, but the majority fled to neighbouring countries to avoid charges and jail terms.

“I couldn’t bear living under an unjust power anymore,” says Thantawut Twewarodomgul, an activist who had previously served a jail sentence for royal defamation. He left Thailand for Laos in the wake of the coup. 

In Laos, some launched digital radio stations to keep up their opposition to the generals and – in some cases the royalist establishment.

    

‘Shocked and scared’ 

But rights groups say their continued activism may have jeopardised their lives. 

Three firebrand radio hosts have been reported missing in Laos since the coup, according to Human Rights Watch.

Late last year the corpses of two aides of radio host Surachai Danwattananusorn washed ashore on the Thai-Laos border.

Their disembowelled bodies were stuffed with concrete blocks and their faces battered beyond recognition.

The men lived with Surachai, 77, who had fled to Laos in June 2014 soon after the coup, and hasn’t been seen since mid-December. 

His wife Pranee, who remains in Thailand, fears the lifelong activist – who spent nearly three years in a Thai jail after being sentenced under the lese majeste law – is dead.

“In a democracy, people should be able to criticise public figures,” Pranee says. 

The grim case has injected fear into the exiled community.

“We are shocked and scared. We are looking to leave Laos,” another exile involved with the anti-junta radio, who declined to be named for their safety, explains. 

    

Activists at risk 

After four years smothering political debate, the junta lifted some of its bans on political activity weeks before announcing elections. 

But there is little trust its repressive reflexes have been dulled.

Pro-democracy campaigner Nuttaa Mahattana, 39, says she was slapped with “sedition” charges for anti-junta stunts.

“Very few voices have risen in the Kingdom against the junta. Someone had to do it,” Nuttaa explains.

She is among thousands of activists facing prosecution in Thailand – rights groups say nearly 2,000 have gone to trial in military courts.

These lawsuits are “a reminder of the perils of speaking out”, says Tyrell Haberkorn, a researcher on Thai state violence from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Prosecutions under the lese majeste law – referred to as “112” after its criminal code – spiked early in the junta rule, with record sentences meted out.

It has been upheld as a necessity to protect the monarchy but rights groups decry it as a tool against dissent.

There were no fresh charges in 2018 – two years after HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn ascended the throne – and the halt in cases could signal the Palace’s shifting attitude regarding 112’s use, says a senior police source. 

But Haberkorn remains unconvinced the law, which she says is used to “create a climate of fear”, is in retreat.

“It will not disappear with elections.”

    

From streets to online 

One of the junta’s first moves was to head off any possible red-shirt resistance, and its leaders have been “summoned, visited and surveilled”, a former leader explains, requesting anonymity.

“We just don’t have the power” to mobilise anymore, he says.

With the streets off-limits to protest for several years, anti-junta sentiment has spilled online, with memes, videos and raps against the military going viral.

But freedom on the web is not a sure bet.

The draconian Computer Crime Act, revised by the junta, has been wielded against online critics. 

The junta-picked rubberstamp parliament also passed a cyber-security bill, allowing authorities to seize devices without court orders when confronted with perceived “critical” threats.

While critics have likened the bill, which allows officials to ask internet providers and users for personal information, to a “Big Brother” mandate, junta spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak says it is necessary to “protect citizens against cybercrimes and fraud”.

But the prospect of the new law in the hands of a junta eyeing a return to power in civilian clothing has left many queasy.

“If the junta-allied party forms the new government, they will retain the same measures,” says Yingcheep Atchanont of monitoring group iLaw.

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