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Thailand’s Junta Tightens the Screws on Shinawatra Country
A year and a half after Thailand’s junta seized power, the so-called Isaan region – the northeast that formed the power base of the Shinawatra clan – has seen rights curtailed, land stolen and the military aiding the powerful in stealing resources, according to an explosive new report by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights.
“High-profile figures were frequently detained in military barracks for several days and had to sign a contract agreeing to stop political activity upon release,” according to the report. “During this initial period, students, faculty members and other people who organized anti-coup activities were summoned for attitude adjustment and asked to cease their political activism.”
At least 200 individuals were unofficially summoned and asked to stop their activism, including more than 60 who were members of the UDD, Red Shirts or pro-democracy activists as well as at least 35 students from Mahasarakham and Khon Kaen Universities, at least 20 academics, at least 50 core villager leaders, and at least 10 activists and NGO workers.
They continue to be visited regularly visited by the military or have to report themselves weekly to the military barracks so that the authorities can track their political activities. Some are visited by the military close to important anniversaries such as the first anniversary of the coup. In addition to being subject to surveillance during their everyday lives, dissidents have found themselves vulnerable to online surveillance as well.
“Restrictions in the name of peace and order have also crept into the university, which is supposed to be a realm of freedom of thought, speech and interaction in the service of engendering wisdom,” the report notes, saying the military drive their Humvees onto campuses almost daily.
Military officers lurk in classroom, intimidating lecturers from discussing sensitive issues in order to avoid drawing unnecessary attention from the military. University administrators have complied with demands to assist in the monitoring of students and to prevent them from acting against the government.
All political gatherings of five or more people have been banned. State officials have interpreted the measure broadly and used it extensively to shut down public events, including both those which aimed to publicize information regarding natural resources and those which promoted discussion about questions of rights and democracy. At least 14 public events have been banned including children’s camp organized by youth activists in Ban Na Nong Bong in Loei Province.
State officials attempt to suppress protests by students and villagers (Photo courtesy of Dao Din)
Civilians alleged to have committed offences include those against the King, national security and others are tried in military courts. That has included 445 civilians, most of them accused of violations under the Firearms Act.
“According to information compiled by (the lawyers’ group), at least seven individuals have been prosecuted for exercising their right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, the report says, including student activists who organized an activity to mark the first anniversary of the coup.
The 26 defendants in the one case in Khon Kaen have been accused of conspiring to commit an act of terror, being members of a secret society, possessing firearms and weapons without permission.
“Several of the defendants are elderly men older than 60 years and the majority have no history of involvement in criminal activities,” the report said. “Some of them said they had been invited to a meeting on farming rather than a meeting to prepare to launch an act of terror.” Some villagers were charged simply for possessing cap guns used for hunting birds and mice for food.
“The majority have been tried in the military court system which inherently lacks independence and impartiality and further had no access to legal counsel, the report continues. “Only one member of the team of three judges is required to be a law graduate and military judges lack experience in adjudicating civilian cases.”
No appeal of the decision or sentence is permitted. This means that defendants in military cases lack any assurance of the right to fair trial.
Led by the NCPO, the military junta has pushed forward a forest reclamation policy to reclaim over 27 million rai (42,200 sq. km, which has led to widespread dispute between the state and local people. These policies have affected at least 30 areas in 14 provinces in the Northeast and have led to charges being brought against more than 100 individuals. More than 15 have been convicted and sentenced to prison.
The number may be larger. The figures are based only on complaints only from those areas in which local people have organized as groups to demand solutions. In reality, the report notes, the authorities often choose to target and raid areas in which people live in small, dispersed groups in order to prevent them from organizing and exercising bargaining power. Martial law and other means have been used to prevent villagers from organizing, meeting, mobilizing to address these problems, or otherwise exercising their rights.
Although the government has announced that the forest reclamation policy was aimed at rich investors, “in reality, TLHR has found that the implementation of the policy instead affected local villagers and led to the loss of their farmland. For example, villagers in six villages of the Dong Yai Forest Reserve in Buriram province were evicted and villagers in seven other villagers in the Tad Ton National Park in Chaiyaphum province were evicted.”
That has forced families to migrate to Bangkok to do construction work. Other displaced villagers sought refuge living with their relatives and rented land to cultivate. Others became hired laborers and collect plants in the forest or sell groceries in the village. Many live in makeshift dwellings on the land of their neighbors.
It is difficult to estimate how many villagers have been made landless. According to the Northeast NGO-Coordinating Committee on Rural Development, if there is no abatement or nullification and the forest reclamation policy is further pursued as planned, villagers in 352 areas or 2,300 villages will be forced to vacate their land.
“In addition to what has been noted above, the military junta has used the absolute power provided by martial law and Article 44 to suppress the movements of villagers who oppose or investigate large-scale development projects which affect their communities,” the report continues. “There are at least 15 areas in the Northeast that have been affected, including the community of the Rak Ban Kerd Conservation Group which is opposed to gold mining in Loei province.
Villagers in many areas are under close surveillance at all times. They are supposed to obtain prior permission even for events such as traditional merit making ceremonies. A public forum to raise people’s awareness prior to a public hearing on the gold mine was ordered to be cancelled and the authorities ordered the removal of all banners and signs opposing the mine.
“While state officials have used special laws to repress the villagers’ political movements, these laws have not been used to contain the behavior of rich investors. In contrast, the laws have even been used in their favor. For example, the military forces used martial law to pressure members of the Rak Ban Kerd Conservation Group in Loei province to allow the mining company to transport ore out of the mine.”
Military and police forces in fact have been deployed to facilitate the transportation of petroleum and gas exploration equipment to an oil field in Khon Kaen province.
“These conditions have resulted in the exclusion of villagers from at every stage of the decision-making processes concerning development projects, including investigation, review, and the demand for impact mitigation measures. As a result, large-scale development projects have sprung up and progressed much more rapidly under military rule that they would under a democratic regime.”
Protected forest areas have been transformed into State Property Land for state or private agencies to lease for periods of at least 50 years. People who used to live in such protected forest areas and do not possess land title deeds have been evicted without any provision for resettlement. Some have even been charged with encroachment
Moreover, the military junta has rushed to promulgate many laws to gravely restrict public participation. These laws provide the government with the authority to manage natural resources and to facilitate the operation of rich investors while undermining public participation and scrutiny. “Therefore, even if the special laws are revoked, the people will still lack the rights to manage natural resources and to determine their futures.”
In sum, the report concludes, “the human rights situation after the coup is one in which a significant number of the people have been stripped of their rights to freedom of speech, association and public assembly. This has impacted their freedom to carry out their daily lives, their right to access justice, and their right to live in a decent environment. The situation is a result of the enforcement of laws that afford draconian power to the authorities to act arbitrarily without any review.
Laws have been used to stifle dissent, particularly of the marginalized, and instead have been used to bolster the security of the junta and national security while excluding, and therefore dispossessing, the people. Such practices are incapable of bringing about long-term or sustainable solutions to the country’s problems.