On May 22, the one-year anniversary of the coup that brought Army general Prayuth Chan-ocha to power in Thailand, handfuls of university students in Bangkok and the northern city of Khon Kaen held peaceful demonstrations advocating community rights and democracy.
That may have been a mistake. The National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta now calls itself, has come down hard on 14 of the students, charging them with sedition, which could carry as much as seven years in prison as well as an additional six-month prison term and a fine of up to 10,000 baht (US$296) for breaching the ban on public assembly. Some of the students in Bangkok were dragged to a local police station where at least three were punched and kicked. Three were subsequently hospitalized.
And, not only is there no letup on the circumscription of rights of students and any other protesters who might rise, the junta is quite comfortable in its role. Last week, when the US State Department issued its annual human rights report, which criticized the curtailment of rights, Sansern Kaewkamnerd, the major general who acts as spokesman for the junta, instead suggested that US officials be summoned to explain the basis for the report. Thailand, he said, has placed the utmost importance on the real situation and the “restoration of peace and happiness.”
The students are now held in Bangkok jails while they await trial in military courts, which have earned universal criticism from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other human rights NGOs, although with no discernible effect on the military leaders who have taken over Thailand. At least 25 military courts are operating across the country.
Amnesty International has 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. 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.
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, according to Thai Lawyers for Human Rights, the military courts tend to impose much harsher sanctions than civilian courts.