PEN International is alarmed over the ongoing crackdown against dissenting voices in Thailand and urges Thai authorities to unconditionally release all who were detained arbitrarily after having peacefully participated in pro-democracy demonstrations.
Among those targeted by authorities is Arnon Nampha, a poet and human rights lawyer, who was initially arrested on 7 August in relation to his participation in peaceful protests that took place in previous weeks, which included a ‘Harry Potter’ themed rally where Arnon gave a speech calling for an end to the use of controversial lèse-majesté laws and the reigning in of the monarchy's power in Thailand. Released on conditional bail on 8 August, Arnon was subsequently re-arrested for his participation in demonstrations which took place on 19-20 September in Bangkok, and was charged with sedition under Section 116 of the Criminal Code of Thailand. Another activist charged in relation to the protests, Dechathorn Bamrungmuang, is a member of the highly popular group called Rap Against Dictatorship, whose music criticising government corruption has garnered millions of views on social media and a criminal probe by Thai authorities.
These rallies form part of the wider student-led protest movement that has been occurring across Thailand since February 2020. Among the grievances expressed by protestors is the erosion of democratic freedoms under the current government and the existence of the highly punitive lèse-majesté law, which carries a maximum jail sentence of 15 years and has been used to silence public criticism of the Thai monarchy.
Despite the risk of imprisonment for those participating in the protests, Thai Police reported that a rally which took place in Bangkok on 16 August drew over 10,000 demonstrators, making it the largest public protest that the country has seen in several years. Over the following months, the protests have continued to grow in size, with estimates of as many as 50,000 protestors participating in a rally on 19 September.
In response to the escalating protests, in October the Thai authorities increased the severity of their crackdown by imposing a state of emergency, banning all protests and carrying out over 90 arrests of high-profile activists, including Patiwat Saraiyaem and Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, who had been subject to PEN International appeals when detained previously. On 22 October, several United Nations human rights experts wrote a joint letter urging the Thai government to release those detained and to allow peaceful protests. While the state of emergency was later lifted, numerous protesters remain detained, and the Thai government has shown little sign of acceding to the demands made by the peaceful protestors.
Another concerning development comes from a report that PEN International has received in recent days that Thai police have begun targeting writers, linking the content of their work to the protest movement. On 19 October, a search warrant was executed by Thai police against Fa Diew Kan (Same Sky), a progressive publishing house founded by scholar and writer, Thanapol Eawsaku. During the search, several books authored by Nattapoll Chaiching and Thongchai Winichakul were seized and Thanapol was brought to a local police station for questioning. While at the time of writing no arrests have been made, the targeting of writers by Thai authorities is illustrative of the threat that the ongoing crackdown poses to freedom of expression in Thailand.
In response to the Thai government’s crackdown, Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said: “Thailand's lèse-majesté law is an affront to democracy. Meant to protect the dignity of the royal family, the law has become a tool to stifle criticism, be it satire or legitimate critique of the actions and practices of the royal family. The Thai people revere their monarchy; it does not need laws that intimidate dissenters or curb free speech to preserve its reputation. Thai authorities should drop lèse-majesté charges in the present instance and remove the legislation from its statute.”
PEN International urges the authorities to unconditionally release peaceful protesters who were arbitrarily detained, end the harassment of writers, publishers and academics, and to amend the Criminal Code, in particular the lèse-majesté law and the articles that criminalise defamation and insult, to ensure that it meets Thailand’s international obligations to protect freedom of expression.
UN human rights mechanisms have repeatedly clarified that criminal defamation and insult laws, including lèse-majesté laws, are incompatible with international standards on free expression. In 2017, the then UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye called on Thailand to stop using its lèse-majesté law to stifle critical speech. He said, “The lèse-majesté provision of the Thai Criminal Code is incompatible with international human rights law, and this is a concern that I and my predecessors have raised on numerous occasions with the authorities.” The disproportionate use of such restrictions also run into tension with Articles 9 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Thailand is a state party.
For further information please contact Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: firstname.lastname@example.org