Student release 'eases pressure'

Student release 'eases pressure'

US agency backs protest group, PM told

As the military court eased pressure on the government by releasing anti-coup students, far more than five friends and supporters celebrated - as an influential military-appointed National Reform Council member claimed the US is behind them. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)
As the military court eased pressure on the government by releasing anti-coup students, far more than five friends and supporters celebrated - as an influential military-appointed National Reform Council member claimed the US is behind them. (Photo by Apichart Jinakul)

The military court's decision to release from custody the 14 students of the anti-coup New Democracy Movement has helped defuse growing tensions between the military regime and its critics over its curbs on free speech.

However, resentment inside the government about the way its critics have treated it still simmers, with a government intelligence team telling the prime minister that a US agency was secretly instigating the students to stand up to the military regime. The US denies the claims.

Observers said the court's decision offers the government a temporary respite from opposition to the students' arrest, though the regime will now have to deal with a possible surge in anti-coup protests boosted by the students' release.

The embattled government already is struggling with the economic slowdown, a potential ban on fishery exports to European countries following the EU's yellow card warning for illegal fishing, UN concerns over aviation safety, and a US assessment of Thailand's anti-human trafficking effort in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report due for release this month.

The arrest of the 14 students on June 26 for violating a National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) order against political gatherings only intensified the pressure, with critics both here and abroad attacking the military for nabbing the students after they staged a peaceful protest.

The court Tuesday rejected a request by Samranrat police for permission to detain the students for another 12 days for further investigation, after the first 12-day detention period expired.

The students are expected to be released from prison today, though the legal cases against them will still proceed.

According to the detainees' lawyer, Krisadang Nutcharat, the court said continued detention would make it difficult for the students to prepare their case.

Kritphatchara Somanawat, a law lecturer at Chiang Mai University, said he saw the students' release as an attempt to mollify opposition from government critics.

The government should now prepare itself for more political gatherings by other groups, emboldened by the students' release.

The government must review its role and find better ways to deal with protests, said Mr Kritphatchara, saying its major problem is a lack of legitimacy, which has hampered it from the beginning.

Sunai Phasuk, a Human Rights Watch representative in Thailand, said the release of the students was intended only to ease political pressure and promote the government's image.

In fact, even though the 14 students are being released, the charges that were levelled against them still stand and they will face prosecution in the military court, Mr Sunai said.

"Human Rights Watch wants all charges against the students and other dissident groups to be dropped unconditionally," Mr Sunai said.

Also Tuesday, NCPO spokesman Winthai Suivaree denied the students' release was intended to boost the government's image.

He said the authority to release the students rested with the court and nobody could sway its decision.

Meanwhile, a government source said an intelligence team has told Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha that a US organisation has supported the students' anti-coup activities.

However, when asked about the claim, Gen Prayut declined to comment, saying reporters were inviting him to get into a fight with foreign agencies.

"You must ask those who supply such information what their motives are," he said.

The report of US influence coincides with that of National Reform Council member Thawatchai Samutsakhon who claimed that a US organisation encouraged some of the students to rally against the military regime. Gen Thawatchai, the former chief of the 2nd Army supervising the Northeast, said he talked to the father of one student, a native of Surin province.

The father had said the unnamed agency took his son away for two nights and after he came back he wanted to get involved with the movement. 

However, Pakorn Sritanawut, 43, father of Panupong Sritanawut, the youngest member and sole Surin native of the Dao Din activist group, which is part of the New Democracy Movement, told the Bangkok Post that he did not talk to the senior retired officer.

"I need to deny such allegations as they smear our family and the student group. I'm the only one from Surin and never said anything like that," said Mr Pakorn.

He didn't think his son or other students were brainwashed or hired to speak out against the government.

"Their Facebook page is open and transparent. Of course, they've met people from the UN and EU and other countries, and international NGOs, but they put up those photos and news of those meetings in public," he said.

US embassy spokeswoman Melissa Sweeney said the US does not take sides in Thai politics but stresses its support of democratic principles and civil liberties.

She said the US has been urging the interim government to remove restrictions on civil liberties as it recognises the important role of civil society.

Ms Sweeney added the restrictions include limits on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

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