The end of civilian trials in military courts is welcome, but we still have a long climb back
Order No 55/2559 issued by the National Council for Peace and Order last week, ending civilian trials in military court, represents a step in the right direction, but the ruling junta must do far more to improve its deplorable record on human rights.
The decision came at what might be viewed as an opportunistic moment, a week before Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attends the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York. No one at home or abroad should be misled, however. The coup maker has not suddenly become a champion of democracy.
His government has at least finally acceded to urging from the UN Human Rights Council to stop putting civilians on trial in military courts. It has ignored other recommendations for revamping judicial procedures, though, such as stopping military officers from doing police work.
The junta has limited its use of military tribunals because, it said, the country is now calmer and because the constitutional referendum encountered no obstacles. Coming from an authoritarian regime, the rationale reeks of pretentiousness. The military courts’ mandate to try civilians arose from the coup makers’ security needs, not the country’s. More than 1,800 people and 1,500 cases were brought before “judges” in uniform on charges ranging from lese majeste and sedition to possession of weapons. All of them could have been tried in the usual courts of justice, but the junta wanted its own brass calling the shots to ensure swift decisions that were favourable to military interests. With their extraordinary powers, military courts keep defendants quiet and deny them the right to appeal the verdict.
This is not the justice of malleable democracy but of rigid discipline. The discipline expected of soldiers is inflicted on civilians, and leeway is granted, if at all, only at the whim of a partisan tribunal, rather than by the requirements of constitutional law. Indeed, the concept of justice is alien to an institution whose sole function is repelling and eradicating enemies. In a civilian court, punishment and absolution serve justice equally. Ideally at least, the cards are never stacked against anyone.
In all modern democracies, furthermore, the justice system is one of three sovereign institutions, the others being the state executive and the legislature. By expanding its jurisdiction, the military has roiled the division of power.
The process is fundamentally different between military and civilian courts. The former need not comply with procedures set out in the penal code and the officers hearing cases require neither a degree in law nor any form of professional legal accreditation. Civilian lawyers who have handled cases in military courts are on record as complaining that there is no clear methodology for summoning witnesses and, crucially, no transparency to the proceedings. The military is not bound to share the reasoning behind its verdicts, as civilian judges are. Regardless of whether the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty or declines to enter a plea, the prosecution and hearing can proceed, and in the absence of a defendant if necessary.
Thailand being a signatory to an international accord on human rights, its governments have clear obligations to meet. Dragging civilians into military courts was an appalling retrograde step for a country that was already struggling to implement democracy. The junta deserves no applause at home or overseas for curbing the use of military tribunals – it should never have gone that route in the first place.
As the premier heads to the UN, this is surely the right time to abandon the other restraints imposed on basic public freedoms. The military must now dismantle the rest of the apparatus that brought needed calm, only to allow stagnation.