Thai Junta Bans Criticism of Law on Criticism

For the second time this month, Thailand’s junta has shut down a planned discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand’s facilities – but is demonstrating a bizarre concern over its international image. It ended up getting embarrassed anyhow.

The club, considered the oldest and most prestigious in Southeast Asia, was supposed to host a discussion of the country’s draconian lèse-majesté law on June 17 but the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta calls itself, closed it for “reasons of security,” citing a threat to public safety. If the event had gone ahead, the military threatened to cut off access to the entire Maneeya Center in Bangkok where the club is located on the 17th floor.

Because of the trouble for other tenants, the FCCT capitulated, said Jonathan Head, the club’s president, Southeast Asia correspondent for the BBC, in an email from London. However, Head said, when the club asked for a letter notifying it of the shutdown, the military refused, saying “first that we would never be allowed to hold an event on a topic as sensitive as the [lese majeste] law, and second that they would never give us a letter ordering us to cancel an event, because [they] feared we would use it in media reporting to make the NCPO look bad.”

The junta looks bad enough already. The order shutting down all discussion of the lèse-majesté issue is an illustration of how extensive is the suppression not just of free discussion but of daily life. Hardly a day goes by without new restrictions, ranging from tighter control over an already throttled internet to limiting dogs on Pattaya beaches. Although scattered public protest does take place, protest in any form, including eating sandwiches in a certain way, or reading George Orwell in public, is banned. Famously, as has been widely reported, raising three fingers a la the Hunger Games to officials gets their owners dragged away.

The lese-majeste provision, Article 112 of Thailand's criminal code, says anyone who "defames, insults or threatens the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent" will be punished with up to 15 years in prison.

The FCCT board is composed of representatives from the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Channel News Asia, the Straits Times of Singapore and others. The junta is paying close attention to the club’s weekly public discussion panels, which have gone for decades and have been considered some of the most substantial in Asia, drawing speakers as illustrious as the Dalai Lama and many others over the years.

"The NCPO is really turning the screws on the FCCT when it comes to the lese majeste law,” said a Bangkok-based human rights activist. “They are shutting down what is really the last place where it was possible to discuss this authoritarian legal instrument against freedom of expression. But what's particularly ironic is that the NCPO refused to give the FCCT a letter ordering the shutdown because they claimed the international media would use that letter against them - showing in a backhanded way just how wrong and rights abusive this order is.”

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the coup leader “and his green uniformed minions are rapidly dragging Thailand down to the ranks of the worst rights-abusing countries in ASEAN - and when you consider that ASEAN contains the likes of Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Brunei, that's really a sad commentary on how bad things are getting in Bangkok," the activist said.

“The most recent issues are related to the media environment following last year’s coup,” Head said, “with the military authorities shutting down three events at the FCCT, and in the first weeks after the coup, arresting a minister from the ousted government while he was giving a press conference at the club.”

“Thai authorities are banning criticism of the country's ban on criticism," said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. "The CPJ calls on Thailand's military government to stop harassing the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and to allow it to resume its valuable role as an open forum for debate on issues of national import, including the use of anti-royal charges to stifle dissent."

When the FCCT received the military’s letter, “we responded by stating that we believed the issue was an important one for both Thais and foreigners living and investing in Thailand, and that all our previous debates on this and other potentially sensitive issues had been constructive and well-moderated, without any of the harmful consequences outlined by the police,” Head said. ”In phone conversations with the police, they told us they were not aware of any regulations we would be breaking if we went ahead with the event, and that they would leave it to the military to decide how to act.”

The FCCT has held many discussions on Article 112 in the past, Head said, “and prides itself on being a forum for free debate, a role we have continued to play since last year's military coup. Since then we have held a wide variety of events, some of which have given the military government full opportunity to argue in support of its plans for the country. The use of Article 112 has long been controversial, and has increased markedly since the coup. We believe the law is a legitimate subject for discussion, not only for Thais, but also for foreigners who live or invest in Thailand. Our discussion would, we believe, have been constructive.”

On June 4, the junta blocked another FCCT panel discussion that was scheduled to discuss the country's human rights situation since the military's takeover. The Thai Lawyers for Human Rights group, which organized the event, said in a statement issued after the cancellation that its research showed the junta had banned and censored 71 similar public events since seizing power.