New crackdown on criticism has ominous overtones
Ton Kla (not his real name) shed tears when he saw his drama mentor and older friend, Golf, behind bars at the Central Women's Correctional Institution three weeks ago.
“Why does Golf have to be locked up just because of a play? Why don't people understand that drama is simply a tool to create thought-provoking fun?” he asked.
The play that landed his friend Golf, or Porntip Munkong, in trouble is The Wolf Bride (Jao Sao Ma Pa), a controversial production by the Prakai Fai Drama Group to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1973 student uprising at Thammasat University. Right-wing groups said it offended the monarchy.
Golf, 26, is known as a dedicated educator and play artist. But for Ton Kla, she is also an older friend who played with him, taught him dramatic arts and brought out his ability to express himself in various art forms, such as short films.
Golf was arrested in Hat Yai on lese majeste charges on Aug 15, just two days after her colleague Bank, or Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, was arrested on the same charge. Like most lese majeste defendants, the activists were denied bail.
The regime's decision to take action against Golf and Bank is part of a push to enforce lese majeste, or Section 112-related cases, following the May 22 coup by the National Council for Peace and Order.
Fifteen cases are now pending in various criminal courts around the country and in the Bangkok military court. On May 25, the council placed anti-monarchy crimes under the jurisdiction of the military court.
The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) considers the new drive for Section 112 cases as a politicised and ominous constriction of freedom of expression.
The particular way in which action has been taken against Bank and Golf 10 months after the performance of the play "suggests the past is an open book of acts which can be criminalised in retrospect by the junta and its allies", says the AHCR.
The circumstances surrounding Bank’s arrest were also bizarre.
The Thai Student Centre for Democracy and the dean of the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts at Khon Kaen University where Bank is studying were informed on Aug 13 that Bank had been ordered to report to a provincial military base for “attitude adjustment”.
Bank, together with the dean and faculty staff were willing to comply with the request.
But when they turned up for the meeting with the military, a soldier told Bank he was actually being arrested for alleged violations of Section 112.
He was taken to the local police station in Khon Kaen, before being transferred to the Chana Songkhram station in Bangkok where the complaint against him originated.
A right-wing group filed charges against former members of the Prakai Fai troupe with at least 13 police stations nationwide late last year. They said the authorities had done nothing to stop a recording of the performance from being distributed online. The NCPO detained 10 current and former Prakai Fai members and interviewed them in June.
The cases concerning Golf and Bank are part of a bigger picture of how human rights have been deteriorating under the junta.
The Internet Dialogue on Law Reform (iLAW) reported that from May 22 to Sept 5, the NCPO summoned 571 people. Of them, 275 people were detained.
Among those, 86 cases are going to trial, with 61 to be held in the military court and 25 in the civil court.
They include 15 lese majeste cases. While the NCPO insists it is not violating human rights, it wants society to ask no questions. For the military, now is the time to silence old foes, including activists and human rights defenders.
Early last month, Amnesty International Thailand was invited to a police station and asked to cancel plans to campaign for the protection of civilians in Gaza.
A few weeks later, Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, a human rights defender and director of the Cross-Cultural Foundation, was summoned by police to answer a defamation complaint filed by the army in response to her request for an investigation into an alleged torture incident in the south of Thailand.
Last week, authorities asked Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) to cancel a seminar on human rights.
They said any complaint regarding violations of rights in the judicial process and the exercise of the right to freedom of expression should be sent to the Damrongdhamma Centre under the Ministry of the Interior.
The report that the TLHR was to send to the centre yesterday highlights various aspects of rights violations.
They include secret and incommunicado detentions and unlawful detentions.
Detainees, says the report, are deprived of contact with relatives or confidantes and have no access to lawyers or legal counsellors.
They are also detained without due process of law. Charges are filed under martial law.
Bail is not granted to offences related to weapon possession, or Section 112 offences.
Cases against civilians and politically motivated cases are tried in the military court.
Apart from deteriorating freedom of expression, there are also allegations of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment.
The United Nations Human Rights Office for South East Asia has expressed concerns about increasing restrictions on human rights defenders as people attempt to exercise their rights to peaceful assembly and expression.
If the NCPO doesn’t care, perhaps the new cabinet which is to begin its work today should.
After all, people expect the “suit-clad” cabinet to behave in a more civic-minded fashion, tolerant to diverse opinions, than the “green-clad” soldiers they supposedly replace.
Achara Ashayagachat is senior news reporter, Bangkok Post.
Senior reporter on socio-political issues
Bangkok Post's senior reporter on socio-political issues.