The late American comic Groucho Marx once famously said that military justice is to justice what military music is to music. That is being proven out with a vengeance in Thailand.
Almost immediately after ousting the elected Pheu Thai government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the National Council for Peace and Order, the pseudonym for the junta, extended the jurisdiction of the military courts to try civilians for breaching junta regulations in the name of preserving “national security.”
So far, since the May 22 military coup that brought Prayuth Chan-ocha and the junta to power, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, at least 666 individuals have been told to report to the authorities. At least 134 of those were ordered to military courts for prosecution.
By the end of this month, the National Legislative Assembly, made up predominantly of military officials or their supporters, is expected to codify military law into the military courts statute, allowing local commanders to detain civilians up to 84 days without charge or judicial oversight, basically handing the military unchecked authority to detain civilians.
There are growing concerns that the military is going too far. After nine months of relative calm after the coup, the 19th in the country’s history – 13 of them successful – Thailand is basically “under lockdown,”according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Chulalongkorn University professor of political science who is one of the country’s most astute observers, writing in the Straits Times of Singapore on Feb. 19.
Thailand has had plenty of occasions to get used to the tanks in the streets. But the degree of control being exercised by Prayuth’s government is unprecedented, sources in Bangkok say. And while the streets are relatively calm, with few protests, there is growing concern, as reported in Asia Sentinel on Feb. 13, that it may have been screwed down too tight, setting the stage for more political turbulence that the military can’t control.
Outraged citizens have taken to the streets in the past to drive the military back to the barracks. In 1992, Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon made the mistake of thinking he could make a coup permanent. That one was named the National Peacekeeping Council. Eventually, 200,000 people came to the streets in what was called Black May. At least 52 people died, hundreds disappeared and 3,500 were arrested before Suchinda and his troops retreated and gave the government back to the civilians,
A big part of the growing tension is the military courts. As Thitinan pointed out, the fallout over charges brought against Yingluck have been limited because the junta is so clearly in charge and with martial law as a coercive instrument to quell street protest.
The military courts have been criticized by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs, with no discernible effect on the military leaders who have taken over Thailand. At least 25 military courts are operating across the country. Besides those tracked by Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the total number being processed in those courts s unknown. The National Council has refused to make that information public.
”All of these people have experienced the violation of their rights in different ways,” according to Thai Lawyers. “Many have been held in custody for at least seven days without an arrest warrant being produced, charges being pressed, or the locations of their detention facilities being disclosed. Many have been denied the right to speak with a lawyer or receive visits from their relatives.”
There have been allegations that military officials have tortured detainees in order to coerce them into confessing while they are in custody. The information obtained has then been used to go after others named under torture.
Amnesty International accused the Thai authorities of “using the courts to silence dissent and make an example of those who voice opposition against military rule.” Civilians convicted in Thai military courts have no right of appeal to higher courts, which is contrary to international law.
“No civilian should be tried in a military court in any circumstance – authorities should move all such cases to civilian courts and stop prosecuting people for acts which are not internationally recognized as offenses,” according to Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director, in a statement issued last September.
“Trying civilians in military courts with no right to appeal violates Thailand’s commitments to protect the right to a fair trial. The Thai authorities should also immediately reinstate the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – the current sweeping restrictions on these rights are creating a climate of fear.”
Martial law is present from the start of the process, with the military arresting civilians and then relying on evidence obtained from them in custody, often by torture, as the human rights organizations charge. There is no right to habeas corpus. The military can use the pretrial period to obtain evidence before the suspect has even appeared before a tribunal.
The defendants have no right to counsel. Note-taking is banned in the courtroom. Often cases are prosecuted in secret. The courts are not accessible to relatives or rights activists. Requests for temporary release are almost never granted, with the authorities citing the political nature of the cases as the reason for the denial.
The military court is a single-tiered system. “Based on cases which have already been adjudicated,” Thai Lawyers for Human Rights observes that the military courts tend to impose much harsher sanctions than civilian courts,: the NGO said. “This forces civilian defendants to choose to plead guilty to the charges rather than to fight them. In addition, no effort is made to explore the background of the accused persons, which should be examined for the possible reduction of sentences. Concern about the harsh and unjust practices of the military courts has pressured people to flee and live in exile.”
The organization called for ceasing the apprehension, arrest and detention of individuals under martial law, saying it “creates a benefit for officials engaged in the criminal prosecution of civilians, but also creates opportunities for the violation of the right to life and security of civilians and makes them unable to access a fair and just judicial process.”
That patently is not going to happen unless protest drives the military out of power again. Although Thitinan and others are growing concerned, it doesn’t appear yet that there is enough momentum to do that.