Thailand in 2016: More Crackdowns, More Corruption

On Aug. 7 last year, a Thai military court broke all records both for proportionality and irrationality by sentencing Pongsak Sriboonpeng, 48, to 60 years in prison for posting six messages and pictures deemed to have defamed King Bhumibol Adulyadej on social media. Because Pongsak was arrested during martial law, there is no appeal to the sentence.

On the same day, another military court in Chiang Mai followed that up by sentencing Sasiwimol Patomwongfa-ngam, a hotel employee with two children, to 56 years in prison for supposedly posting Facebook messages deemed to have defamed the monarchy, whose lèse-majesté laws are the harshest in the world. According to the Global Freedom NGO, Sasimiwol never posted the messages. The Facebook page was allegedly created by her ex-husband’s jealous new wife.

The sentences of both were cut in half, Pongsak’s to 30 years and Sasiwimol’s to 28 years after the two pleaded guilty. Nonetheless, the two sentences reflect the deepening harshness of the Thai military to the slightest inference of an insult to the king – or to the military itself, and the depressing prospect of more of the same for 2016. Penalties for lese-majeste, as the law pertaining to insults of the royal family, have been doubled from an already draconian five years to 10. Merely by clicking ‘like’ on an offensive post, one can be held liable for committing lèse-majesté.

The lese-majeste arrests contrast dramatically to the appetite on the part of both the Thai police and military to ignore overwhelming evidence of vast corruption in their own ranks, with the mysterious deaths of top police late last year and the decision on the part of several others to get out of the country for fear of their lives amid widespread reports of human trafficking and other smuggling including fuel and consumer goods by military officials. Several of the top military including the brother of Prime Minister and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha have listed personal assets far beyond what they could possibly make as officers. A promise of elections has receded deep into the future.

Laughable arrests

Other arrests that would be laughable in any other country include Thanakorn Siriphaibun, a 27-year-old factory worker for insulting the King’s dog Thong Daeng. He faces 37 years in prison. Another individual who had been diagnosed as severely mentally ill for the previous decade was nonetheless sentenced to 10 years in prison for slashing a portrait of the king and queen. The sentence was later reduced to five years.

The arrests don’t just include alleged offenses against the royal family. In early December, 37 activists were detained while travelling by train to Hua Hin, the site of the king’s summer palace 200 km. south of Bangkok, to protest what appears to have been massive corruption on the part of the military in the construction of Rajabhakti Park, where millions of dollars allegedly have been skimmed off through everything from kiting the value of the land to vast overcharges on the smelting of statues of the country’s most recent kings.

Authorities simply detached the train compartment carrying the students en route and detained the activist, impelling Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Southeast Asia and Pacific regional office director, to complain that “these heavy-handed and completely unjustifiable arrests highlight Thailand’s need to remove the military’s powers of arbitrary detention, which are being used to harass and criminalize peaceful dissent.” Thanet Anantawong was one of the 36 to be prosecuted despite the fact that he was awaiting treatment in Sirindhorn Hospital in Bangkok and detained for six days in an undisclosed location without medication.

Peaceful dissent long gone

In fact, peaceful dissent has disappeared from the country. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights catalogued 10 cases from 2015 although authorities rarely provide details of cases, leaving rights groups to follow prosecutions as well as they can across Thailand.

“People who have had nothing to do with political activities have been criminalized on offences concerning illegal possession or use of firearms, ammunitions or explosives,” according to Thai Lawyers NGO. “They have been tried in the military court in a large number as well. According to the Judge Advocate General's Department information, from May 22, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015, there have been 1,408 civilians tried in the military court including 1,629 alleged offenders/defendants.

In one case, Thai Lawyers found, an activist named Pansak Srithep was arrested under the law banning political gatherings of five persons or more – despite the fact that he was walking alone to turn himself in for violating a ban on an event peacefully calling for new elections. Thai Lawyers called it “suppression against the smallest demonstration ever, since there was just one demonstrator.”

In March, four defendants -- Sansern Sriounruen, Chanwit Chariyanukul, Norapat Luephon and Wichai Yusuk complained that they had been hit, punched, booted in the head, chest and backs in an effort to extract information from them over a bomb blast at the Criminal Court in Bangkok. Sansern showed scars where he claimed to have been hit 30 to 40 times with a Taser.

Thailand has been a human rights disaster since the May 2014 military coup, according to Brad Adams, Southeast Asia representative for human Rights Watch. “The junta has prosecuted hundreds of its critics in military courts, engaged in widespread censorship, blocked more than 200 websites, and banned public gatherings of more than five people.”

Prime Minister Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly postponed elections while taking no serious steps to restore democratic processes, Human Rights Watch. Charged Thai security forces have not been prosecuted for serious abuses, while separatists attack civilians, including teachers and schools. Migrants in Thailand, especially those in fishing industry, are vulnerable to trafficking, abuse, and exploitation. Thai authorities regularly push -back boats carrying ethnic Rohingya from Burma, while those arriving ashore have been arrested and sent to immigration detention.